Two figures in the Bible seem to have left this world without dying: Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him. (Gen. 5:24) As they kept on walking and talking, a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared and separated one from the other; and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. (II Kings 2:11)
Enoch walked and the apocryphal literature contains several works describing all that he saw. Elijah rode in a fiery chariot, and we all know the legends of his continuing to travel the earth, bringing us messages of reproof and promising us redemption.
Unfortunately, today those of us who leave this life in fiery chariots do not do so as prophets moving on to a higher spiritual plane, but rather as the victims of violent events of one of two types: traffic accidents and terrorist bombings. It is interesting to consider the different psychological and social impacts of these two phenomena.
Recently I asked a secretary at the Hebrew University to arrange an entrance permit for me for a meeting there (due to a bombing on the campus a couple of years ago, all visitors must have advance permission to enter). When she asked for my license number, I said I was coming by public transportation. What, you still take the bus? I didnt know anyone did! was her response. The public impact of suicide bombings on buses has been quite powerful. It is indeed true that people who dont need to take the bus are much more likely to travel by private car or taxi now. Needless to say, there is a socio-economic undertone to this effect: the people who remain exposed to terror are those who dont have cars and/or cant afford to travel by taxi.
But this discussion is not just a product of the recent intifada. Living temporarily in Jerusalem in the 80s, we enrolled our first-grader in the Ramah summer day camp across town, along with three friends. I had assumed that we would put the boys on the #4 bus each morning for the 40 minute ride, to a stop right in front of the camp. But another parent objected: Its dangerous to ride the bus there could be a terrorist bombing! It doesnt take much expertise in statistics to understand that the probability of being harmed in a terrorist bomb on a bus is significantly lower than that of being harmed in a traffic accident in private vehicle. This argument did not convince the mother, but the inconvenience of spending 90 minutes in urban traffic twice a day making the round trip to camp even with a carpool rotation ultimately brought all the parents to the bus stop to say goodbye.
We jump into our cars and set off on needless journeys on winding, slippery, two-lane roads in a cultural environment in which traffic laws and the laws of physics are seen by many as just another set of government bureaucratic annoyances to be evaded whenever possible. And we do so, against the odds, even when public transport is available and convenient, because we have internalized the irrational sense that riding the bus is risky.
Fear is obviously not a completely rational response, and is affected by all sorts of data not directly related to the danger. The traffic police remain understaffed, the budgets for road safety improvement and safety education woefully inadequate, while we invest billions in protective walls and guards and high-tech solutions to prevent terrorist attacks. I cant help feeling that by our response, we are essentially handing the terrorists an easy and unnecessary victory.