We are all on the frontlines now
USA Today, Sept. 13, 2001
by Samuel G. Freedman

NEW YORK - Last Sunday, back when we Americans were blissfully ignorant, my wife and I hosted an Israeli friend, Yossi Klein Halevi, for lunch. Afterward, he borrowed our phone to call his family in Jerusalem. As he chatted with his wife, I overheard his voice turn grave as he asked, "Is she all right?"

Hanging up 20 minutes later, Yossi explained: His teenaged daughter, a winsome would-be painter, had passed through the Nahariya train station just moments before a suicide bomber struck. A friend's father, who had driven her there, had been wounded.

I have heard stories like that for the past year from friends and colleagues in Israel. Until Tuesday, I felt selfishly grateful for the physical and psychic distance from the line where civilization confronts barbarism. But we're all Israelis now, all of us New Yorkers, all of us Americans.

Never will we send our children to school, board an airplane, admire a landmark without aching in our fearful, anxious scars left by Tuesday's attacks. Never again will I hear a siren or spot a smoky cloud without a twinge of dread.

I flipped on the TV news Tuesday morning to see how the voting day had begun in New York's mayoral primary. Instead, the screen showed a World Trade Center tower wreathed in smoke, the result of a plane crashing. It was still plausible then to think this had been some terrible accident.

But when you work in a journalism school, as I do, news moves fast, so I soon learned of the second crash into the Trade Center, the Pentagon attack, the presumption these were kamikazes of the jihad. I tried calling my wife Cynthia downtown, where she was teaching. Our kids, what about our kids? But the cell lines were overwhelmed; no calls went through.

Unable to reach my loved ones - just as Israelis like Yossi often are when terror attacks there drive the whole country onto cell phones, each desperate attempt canceling out every other - I made my way toward my kids' elementary school. There, parents waited and paced as teachers collected our children.

"I work in the trade center," one woman said, "but I took the kids to school today. Fate. Just fate."

Ten minutes later, I had my son and daughter in hand. Then my wife arrived, blouse soaked from carrying a backpack of student papers. Knowing the subways were shut down, the buses irregular, the cabs all taken, the road through Central Park barricaded, we marched three miles across and then uptown. We passed lines at pay phones, clusters of people trying their cellphones, knots of others bent over a single radio. Behind the security gate at a toy store, a handlettered sign said, "Godspeed, New York."

An eternity ago, on Labor Day, we'd clicked snapshots of the twin towers from a Circle Line Boat.

My seven-year-old daughter kept sucking her fingers. After I reprimanded her the fourth time, she said tinily, "I'm worried." My son, just nine, added, "I don't think I can sleep tonight."

And then we were home, safe, or at least in the facsimile of safety, for nothing will ever feel safe the same way again. There was a call on the answering machine from my sister, shaken. And there were emails. One had been sent by a high school classmate now living outside Tel Aviv. How often during the past year, after some suicide bombing or another, had I emailed her? Now the tables had been turned.

Or maybe they had not. Maybe I was living, even for a day, the life she and Yossi and other Israelis had been living during this past year of intifada. Maybe we were part of the same war, which presented the same conundrum: How can your nation not retaliate? But who exactly do you retaliate against? And how can you be sure you don't just inspire the next martyr, so honored to kill innocents for the glory of God?

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