Terrorism Against Civilians

By Serge Schmemann  

The three men stood about twenty-five yards from each other along the Ben Yehuda promenade in Jerusalem, one dressed as a woman. One probably gave a signal, maybe a nod of the head, and all three tripped switches that detonated crude bombs hidden under their clothes—about five pounds of explosives each, packed with nuts and bolts to act as shrapnel.

Already when the first “whump” sounded, many people instinctively knew what it was. Fighter jets routinely break the sound barrier over Jerusalem, but they sound more like a thunderclap. Still, people will freeze until they hear the fading rumble that confirms a jet. The bombs have a different sound, a muffled, nearby thump. People who have heard one recognize it immediately. Even before the second and third explosions sounded on September 4, 1997, many people felt the gruesome familiarity of the sound.

I was on my way to pick my wife up at the school where she worked and had just crossed Ben Yehuda when I heard the blasts. Though I had never heard the sound before, I also knew what it was. In two years in Israel, I had covered the aftermath of nine suicide bombings, and, like everyone else, I was always waiting for the next. I also knew what would happen next. First the cautious pause—terrorists have been known to wait until emergency services congregate to set off another bomb. Then the screams of the wounded and the horrified, the sirens, the chaotic convergence of medics, police, detectives, soldiers, and black-bearded Orthodox Jews who collect every bit of Jewish flesh and bone for a proper burial. Cellular service is overwhelmed, and people search frantically for available phones to reassure their homes.

And everyone there feels that horrible helplessness, that empty rage. “It’s almost a sense that this is a fact of life we have to live with,” said a young lawyer, Jonathan Shiff, watching the commotion from his window above Ben Yehuda. “It’s no way to live, but we do it anyway,” interjected a woman standing alongside us.

A suicide bombing is unlike any other act of violence. There is no real defense against an attack that is essentially random, or against a man—all suicide bombers in Israel have been men—so crazed by religion and despair that he is prepared to die. In the communiqués that followed, Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic movement, described the bombers as martyrs and soldiers. But really, they were only suicides and killers. The twelve-year-old girl slain by their bombs was not a soldier, nor an enemy. Nor were the other victims, a man and two women.

By its very design and purpose, terrorism is a violation of all norms of behavior, law, and combat. Its objective is to demoralize, dehumanize, humiliate, and horrify through acts of random and demonstrative viciousness.

And almost instinctively, the human spirit fights back by reaffirming the very spirit that terror seeks to erode. Within hours the streets were clean of blood and glass, and by morning thousands of Israelis, many from far away, defiantly strolled along Ben Yehuda, filling it with resolve and life.

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