I was born into one Middle East war and lived through two others. So the primeval groan that welled deep in my stomach as I watched that second plane slam into the World Trade Center last Tuesday was entirely familiar. The last time I felt diffuse terror and anxiety on this order of magnitude was on a tranquil late afternoon on Yom Kippur, 1973, walking with my husband across a field north of Tel Aviv to break the fast with friends. Into the unbroken silence of a rowdy country that comes to a dead halt once a year to atone, came the wail of an air-raid siren. We ended the fast that night in the shelter beneath our friends’ apartment building, our ears glued to transistor radios. The next morning my husband, like me an immigrant student from England, was called up into the army to fight a war that had taken Israel completely by surprise, for which she was unprepared, and which shattered the myth of invincibility in which Israelis had cloaked themselves since the 1967 Six Day War.
I had lived even more directly through that earlier war, when shells tore across the Galilee kibbutz where I was spending a year between high school and university. But this was different. This was chaos, and untold casualties and nameless dread, not to mention a sense of abject helplessness not only for the soldiers being mowed down at the front, but for those of us who were not in the army, had no crucial jobs to do, and could only huddle at home or in neighbors‘ houses, watching television and listening to radio news that was heavily controlled by the military. Sound familiar? For once Americans have fallen victim to the same paralyzing horrors that people face on a daily basis all over the Middle East. Now the illusion has vaporized for Americans, as it did in recent years for Israel: the illusion of impregnability. Israel, accustomed to fighting its wars along its borders, is now forced to fight them in discotheques and pizzerias, while the Palestinians continue to experience war in their shelled and bulldozed homes. America, accustomed to fighting its wars overseas, is finding that the war has come home and, like Israel, is having to face the fact that there are people who hate us enough to kill themselves in order to kill us. No wonder both Israelis and Palestinians — and those all over the world who live in daily fear of terrorism — are asking themselves whether now, at last, Americans get it.
What this new and fundamental sense of unsafety will do to the national psyche, to our foreign policy, to our capacity for introspection over our long-term role in what has happened, won’t become clear until our homing instincts for order have re-asserted themselves. We can‘t live without routine, but I suspect that what happened last week will leave us with an irretrievably altered sense of what it means to live a normal life. I was trapped for four days at the Toronto Film Festival, booking and rebooking flights that were canceled and re-canceled. On the fifth day, I made it home through the kindness of an Air Canada agent who maneuvered me onto one of the few flights leaving for L.A. Since my return, my 3-year-old daughter, who understandably expected to get her mother back in more or less the same guise in which she went away, has by day been good-naturedly swatting away the madwoman who follows her around, pelting her with hugs and kisses at 10-second intervals. By night, she refuses to sleep anywhere but in my bed.