Pepper spray and the loss of innocence

by Brian on November 1, 2015

in A Parent in Israel,In the News,Living Through Terror

Pepper spray“At the beginning of the day, we had four full boxes with 50 in each,” Yaakov says, gesturing to the one remaining carton and the hastily hand-scrawled sign above the window reading “pepper spray” at the Talpiot Jerusalem branch of the popular trekker supply store La’metayel. “And now look,” he says, “there are just 8 left.” We bought two, as did a woman standing next to us at the cash register.

Welcome to the new Jerusalem, where pepper spray has become the latest fashion accessory in the defense against the knife attackers who have terrorized our city and much of the rest of Israel.

As Yaakov showed us how to open and close the pepper spray canister safely and exhorted us to always wash our hands after use, and “to never, ever touch your eyes,” I was filled with questions. Do you need to hold it in your hand whenever you go out, safety catch off, or can you leave it in a pocket until you see someone suspicious and then whip it out? How many sprays are in each bottle? What good will it do if someone lunges at you from behind? What if you spray someone innocent by mistake?

The Internet and social media have been full of suggestions these past weeks, and not just about pepper spray. If you see someone you’re not sure about, don’t take chances, just cross the street, advised one person. Carry something you can use as a club, advocated another: hiking poles, an umbrella or a selfie stick will all work. One Jerusalem resident asked if a toy Star Wars light saber would do the trick. Don’t wear headphones, don’t read your email on your phone while you’re waiting at a bus stop, do wear heavier clothing or a backpack. Walking with a dog probably makes you less of a target. (Indeed, one enterprising Jerusalem dog walker who is regularly seen with at least five large hounds in tow has offered to escort kids to school.)

As this latest incarnation of terror drags on with no end in sight, strange questions arise. “What’s scarier?” a Shabbat guest asked the other day. “A suicide bomb exploding in a café or a bus, or a knife attacker?” The fact that we were even having this conversation was profoundly depressing.

“The suicide bomber, for sure,” I replied. “If you’re at an Aroma and a bomb goes off, you’re pretty much going to die. But most of the knife attack victims have survived.” But with what scars and injuries, both physical and emotional? I thought to myself.

“How about missiles?” another guest asked. That one was not so clear. On the one hand, we have the Iron Dome system to protect us, and it has worked remarkably well. On the other hand, the warning siren has a visceral, cumulative effect; if it goes off too many times before bed, like Pavlov’s dog, you’ll imagine the Code Red alert sounding just as you’re nodding off to sleep and jerk awake repeatedly.

Still, knives are so much more personal. The image of an individual terrorist with hate in his or her eyes coming towards you, rather than a faceless missile or a bomb, generates a more intimate, primal fear.

They are also more unpredictable. Unlike with missiles, “people just don’t know what to do,” explained Gila Sella who directs the help line at Natal – the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War. Speaking with reporter Judy Maltz of Haaretz, he said that “last summer, during the war…you knew that you had to run into a safe room. As a result, people felt in control. Today, they don’t.” Similarly, during the Intifada, people could soothe their fears by avoiding crowded buses or cafes; today there are no safe spaces.

For immigrants from the U.S., the knife attacks have stolen from us one of the clearest contrasts we had with the Old Country: that it’s generally safe to walk the streets in Israel, even at night. I remember living in Berkeley and being nervous all the time, looking over my shoulder, when I was out alone. When I lived in New York in early 1980s, I was almost mugged twice. Israel has known great sorrow and interminable anxiety, but random violent crime on the streets was not part of it…until now.

“It’s good that you’re getting out of here,” my daughter Merav’s friend said to her as we were sitting around the Shabbat table a few weeks ago. She was referring to the fact that Merav was about to leave for Texas, where she will spend the next several months selling Dead Sea products from an Israeli-run kiosk in a local mall.

“You think she’d somehow be safer in Texas?” I asked Merav’s friend, feeling surprisingly irked. “Gun violence in America is out of control! Look what just happened in Roseburg, Oregon. Remember the Virginia Tech shooting? Newtown, Connecticut? Aurora, Colorado?”

My friend and colleague Ilene Prusher just moved from Jerusalem to Boca Raton to teach journalism at Florida Atlantic University. In a recent blog post, she began listing schools that have seen shootings recently, including Texas Southern University, just a couple of hours drive from where my daughter will be working.

Ilene then cited a sobering statistic from The Washington Post: there is more than one mass shooting involving four or more people every day in the U.S. She wondered whether she should heed the suggestions of U.S. presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson to bring a firearm to her classroom, but dismissed the idea. “I never [carried a gun] in Jerusalem, Kabul or Baghdad,” all places where she was posted as a journalist, she wrote. “So why start doing so in Florida?”

“Malls aren’t necessarily safe either,” I added, recalling the video released earlier this year by the terrorist group al-Shabaab, which called for attacks specifically on shopping malls in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. (and even mentioned specifically the iconic Mall of America in Minnesota). It was the same al-Shabaab that besieged the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013, killing 67 people.

Merav was conflicted. On her blog a few days later she wrote, “I may just be afraid to admit out loud that I actually feel a slight relief to be getting a break from the hate and the fear, even if just for a short while. Unfortunately, the cringing feeling I get every time I open Facebook seems to have packed itself into my carry-on.”

Guns in America, knives in Israel, and we haven’t even gotten to the rest of the Middle East – is there any place that’s not teetering on the edge of violence today? It’s no wonder that when friends came to Israel to celebrate their son’s bar mitzvah last year, in what has become a new hip ritual for American families, they invited us to spend the afternoon with them at Caliber 3, a shooting range outside Efrat that offers a two-hour “anti-terrorism” program for tourists of all ages.

Led by several pumped up Israeli instructors in army fatigues, this “fun-filled” bar or bat mitzvah activity includes interactive demonstrations of how the army takes down terrorists, live gun play for participants, and – in a segment that at the time felt like the weakest link in the program but now seems remarkably prescient – krav maga practice specifically in how to disarm an attacker coming at you with a knife.

If there is any comfort in these difficult days, it is that this too will pass. Maybe it will be some action Israel takes; maybe it will come with a shift in the weather. (Last year’s car ramming terror attacks petered out with the rains.) Maybe it will be next week, maybe not for a year. It will be replaced by something else, possibly more benign, possibly even worse. Even publishing this article is a risk; by the time it appears in print, the situation could have morphed into something entirely different.

The bottom line: Everything changes; it’s the first lesson in mindfulness meditation and the only calming take-away I can offer in a profoundly anxious time. How do we survive until we get to that point? Some people will place their faith in God. My wife Jody described it differently. “I have faith in temporality,” she says.

Amen. But while you’re at it, go out buy some pepper spray. If you can still find any on the store shelves.

I first wrote about the latest matzav in The Jerusalem Post.

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