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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

The Only Thing We Have to Fear...

Galilee Diary #527, February 16, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

And you, my servant Jacob, do not fear; and Israel, don't be afraid; for I will redeem you from afar and bring your offspring from the land of their captivity, and Jacob shall return and live in peace and tranquility with none to make him afraid.
        -Jeremiah 46:27

We arrived in Israel on aliyah on the day in August, 1990, when Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Within a few months we joined our neighbors in sealing our windows with tape and plastic sheeting, and picking up our gas masks, and spent quite a few hours that winter sitting in those sealed rooms, wearing our gas masks, unsure whether to feel scared or stupid. The gas masks came in cardboard boxes with a shoulder strap, which some people decorated so they could wear them around town as a fashion accessory; one was supposed always to have it handy - and indeed, I remember surreal scenes of alerts in a Pizza Hut and in a movie theater. The whole adventure ended on Purim of 1991, and in the end no chemical weapons were ever used. The Scud missiles caused a few casualties - fewer than those caused by suffocation from improperly deployed gas masks. And then we heard claims that plastic sheets and sealing tape would not have been worth much against nerve gas anyway.

Over the years the government re-collected the gas masks. I don't know how effective that effort was, nor do I know what they did with the ones they collected. In subsequent conflicts the enemies of Israel relied on conventional rockets and mortars (across the borders from Gaza and Lebanon) and caused a lot more damage than Saddam's scary Scuds (civilian deaths in Israel from the first Gulf War: 9 (of which 7 were from gas mask mishaps); from rockets from Gaza (2001-2009): 28; from Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon in 2006: 43).

Now, suddenly, without any fanfare or headlines - or explanation - the civil defense authority has been notifying us, community by community, to stop in to a local distribution center to pick up gas masks for the family. So now we again have a stack of those familiar rectangular boxes in the back of the linen closet. Do the civil defense authorities know something they are not telling us? Are there enemies of Israel who are stockpiling chemical weapons? Does someone in the civil defense authority have a brother-in-law who manufactures gas masks? Is this new distribution supposed to make us feel more calm and secure, or more nervous and afraid? If the money spent on gas masks had been spent on upgrading the fire department, could the devastation caused by the Carmel fire have been reduced? If the Iranian bomb is the threat du jour, why are we not building fallout shelters and distributing radiation pills?

Sometimes I think that the harder we work at combating terrorism, the more we actually hand a victory to the terrorists; after all, if their purpose is to terrorize us, to paralyze us, to cause us to divert massive resources from useful and productive activities to simply making ourselves feel more secure, then they have been a resounding success - just consider the budget of the TSA. And of course, they succeed in doing this with a minimal investment, and even minimal action. Just one guy who tried to make explosive shoes has every one of millions of passengers (only, apparently, in North America) entering the gate concourse in their stocking feet.

I am not a fatalist and I believe in reasonable, rational caution. But when the archaeologists dig up our era a thousand years hence, what will they make of all the hand sanitizers, nut-free schools, and gas masks? The Age of Fear?

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