One afternoon, days after the election, I clicked on a news link. An automatic replay of comments by the president-elect Trump’s choice for chief strategist accompanied whatever story I intended to read. I heard a roar, lights flashed, and my left knee and ankle went ice cold. The stronger sensations lasted only a few seconds at most, but my ear kept ringing. It took me a full day of confusion over it to realize what had happened to me.
I went shopping for vegetables and shoes on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on January 27th, 2002. I chatted with an older man who held the door for me. I walked northwest towards the bus stop. I hadn’t gotten far and I’d turned to do something when a wave of sound hit me from the left, causing lights to flash and blowing my skirt back. When the sound waves stopped, my ear began to ring. I quickly recognized I wasn’t hurt except for the ringing and some pain in my ankle from stumbling off the curb. I looked at the block behind. I saw glass, shopping bags, and bodies. I stood in brief stillness suddenly broken by a new roar: running, yelling and sirens. We were in the wide open, but I felt like I was in a tunnel. I sat on the curb for a long time and eventually walked to a friend’s house.
Over the course of days and hours, we learned the bombing had killed an older man – and from the images and descriptions on the news, I was pretty sure it was the man who’d held the door for me. The cause of the wreckage had been a woman with a loaded backpack. I returned to normal life, except for some ringing in my ear and I am occasionally still troubled by ear pain. My trauma didn’t seem like much compared to the people who’d been closer to that explosion or the many others in Israel and the territories in that period. I’d been in the Middle East well over a year by then. I put my experience in context.
Months later, I backpacked in Europe on my way back to the United States for graduate school. In Milan to meet some relatives, I went browsing at a clothing store. I turned a corner in a basement shop and saw woman in a full burqa. My heart began racing and I realized I was terrified and fairly well trapped underground. I walked away fast. Then I thought, No, no, I will not do this. I walked back over and forced myself to stay in the aisle with her. (I have no idea if she noticed and if so, I’m very sorry I may have made the experience weird for her.)
There were, in Israel, people who responded to terrorism close to their homes, schools, and shopping centers (very close – the country is a very small place) with anger, with a reaction of bulldoze them all over. The friend whose home I raced to had responded by calling “them” animals. I had no words at that moment, but I left soon afterwards. I am not special, but I never felt the same about that friend afterwards, even as I knew she was scared and angry.
I left her house and met up with another friend, a phenomenal teacher and mentor, part of an Orthodox feminist minyan, who did not abide hate. This friend read Arabic, and over the coming weeks we read all the English, Hebrew, and Arabic news about the woman who had committed suicide by backpack, taking with her a grandfather and so many people’s sense of well-being. Her name was Wada. She was twenty-eight – older than me then but eleven years younger than me now. She had been married at sixteen. She suffered a stillbirth and then was divorced by her husband because she could not have more children. She volunteered with the Red Crescent Movement and saw awful sights. She led a hard life, which does not justify murder-suicide, but makes her all too human.
There is no excuse for hate. I felt all the normal feelings of fear, sadness, anger, grief, and pain. But I had then and continue to maintain now, a visceral rejection of retribution. I don’t think this route was the easier one. Choosing to stay angry, to not delve into Wada’s humanity, would have been much simpler. Choosing to see my interests as the only ones I needed to honor would have been less of a challenge to my self-image.
Returning to the afternoon days after the election, I only realized hours later that I had had a mini-flashback to January 2002. The words of hate coming out of my computer, the anger I’ve felt at the proposals for registering Muslim Americans, immigrants, and visitors in this country, the threats to round up and deport undocumented immigrants, a surge in anti-Semitic activity – they’re not parallel to the second Intifada in Israel or hamatzav (the situation) in the Middle East. My point here is not at all to make allusions to Israel.
My point is: I came back to a strange United States. I had “missed” September 11th, but I had not been isolated from terrorism. I had been closer to it than the vast, vast majority of Americans. Yet all around me, flags were flying and we were preparing to send soldiers off to a new war. Americans struck me as angry, claiming to be scared; seeking retribution under the pretense of seeking security.
I know from my study of history that we have long been a people with hate close to the surface. I never satisfactorily figured out the why, never came to an answer better than that we’re human.
We have philosophers, texts, and art offering us different ways. Some people choose to believe and to act on them. Some choose to act on the hate, to abide it and give it space. More people choose not to act at all. I want to think my reaction the other day was extreme and not portentous. I know the context doesn’t make sense, but who says trauma is lucid?
My body recognized hate as hate and I wish for it to have no place here.