Making peace with terror

Frightening, yet familiar: A bomb claimed 25 lives in Omagh, Northern Ireland on Aug. 15, 1998.
Frightening, yet familiar: A bomb claimed 25 lives in Omagh, Northern Ireland on Aug. 15, 1998. (AP photo)
In the Northern Ireland town of Omagh, a group of citizens gathered around a small garden Friday to memorialize the victims of Tuesday's devastating attacks in the United States.

Michael Gallagher stepped forward and placed on the soil an American flag that had hung in his son Adrian's room since 1991.

The garden itself was created to commemorate another tragedy, a 1998 car bombing not far from this spot that had killed 29 people and injured hundreds more. One of the dead was 21-year-old Adrian, who had driven into the bustling shopping district that Saturday to buy a pair of jeans and boots.

The attack, attributed to a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army, was the worst episode of political violence of nearly continuous bloodshed over three decades.

Northern Ireland is like so many other troubled spots around the world, where graveside services for the victims of terrorist acts are recurrent sights. In Israel, in Northern Ireland, in Turkey, political violence is a daily reality - if not the actual deed, then the ever-present possibility of it.

Tuesday's assaults in New York and Washington dwarfed all previous terrorist attacks anywhere in the world. It still seems implausible that terrorist strikes will become a regular occurrence in American life.

But in many other countries, political violence is as frequent as rain showers, enough to fundamentally change the way residents of those places live.

It is not that life comes to a halt because of the constant risk of a pipe bomb exploding or a suicide attack. Normal life does go on. "You do what people everywhere do," said Ellen Shankman, an American-born Israeli lawyer. "You go to work, have a family, live a creative and joyous life."

That does not mean that they don't accommodate themselves to the possibilities of peril. "We just learn to live with the tension," said Lee Berlman, a 69-year-old Israeli tour guide who grew up in the United States but has lived in Israel for 35 years.

Little adjustments

Residents in such places make countless compromises to limit their exposure.

"You go to the market a little earlier because there aren't that many people then, so they may not be tempted to set off the bomb then," said Berlman. "You take the long way around to go from Galilee to Jerusalem. The short, prettier way is to take the Jordan Valley Road, but they shoot people on the Jordan Valley Road. So, I go the long way even though it adds an hour in both directions."

Few Americans look underneath their cars for bombs, but Gallagher, who also lost a younger brother in 1984 to the Northern Ireland "troubles," does so every day. In so many ways, his life and psyche are contorted by the violence that scars his country.

"You don't set up appointments with people you don't know by prior arrangement. You don't take the same routes. You stay away from windows. You're aware of being approached by people you don't know. You are frightened when strangers come to your house."

Until Adrian's death, father and son ran a car-repair shop in Omagh. Since then, Gallagher has devoted himself to an Omagh anti-terrorist organization, which he chairs. "There's no difference between Arab terrorists and Irish terrorists, between Christian terrorists and Muslim terrorists," he says.

Many Americans who have lived overseas are familiar with the adjustments people make in places frequently traumatized by terrorism. Timi Gerson, who works for an anti-free trade organization in Washington, was an exchange student in Bogota, Colombia, in 1997 when violence and kidnapping were endemic. She learned that as a woman, it was dangerous to go out alone or to take taxis. She became accustomed to the sight of soldiers with submachine guns and bulletproof shields.

Although the Colombians took many precautions, Gerson said, she was struck by how blase they were about the recurring violence. She recounted how she was finishing a meal at a cafe in the coastal town of Cardenas when a bomb detonated in a building directly across the street. Glass from the explosion rained down on her.

Nearly as shocking, though, was the response of her host family when she returned to Bogota and told them what had happened. "Their reaction was: 'Oh Timi, that's horrible. We're so sorry that happened to you. And please pass the peas.'

"They get so desensitized and apathetic to it. It's not that they don't care. They just realize there's nothing they can do about it."

She believes the vibrancy and creativity she recognized in Colombians was an outgrowth of their appreciation that they could be visited by tragedy at any time. Life seemed more precious to Colombians because of the danger.

But she also noticed Colombians had an aversion to politics, fearing to do anything that could be seen as provocative. That's why her Colombian boyfriend wanted Timi to stop her work for a women's rights organization. He thought she was risking being kidnapped.

Similarly, William DeMars, a government professor at Wofford College in South Carolina, said that when he lived in Cairo during the mid-'90s, he noticed many Egyptians purposely kept a low profile to avoid becoming targets.

"They called it 'staying close to the wall,' " he said. "You lived your life in a way that didn't put you in conflict with others."

"You do what you can"

Henry Laurence, a Bowdoin College political scientist, grew up in a London frequently targeted by IRA bombs during the 1970s and 1980s. Precaution simply became a part of existence, as he suspects will now happen in the United States.

"There were some obvious inconveniences that Americans will have to adopt," he said. "Checkpoints, more visible security, bags checked again and again. You'll spend a lot more time in queues. There will be no litter bins outside because they can be used as bombs. You'll become suspicious of any unattended bags."

Such inconveniences, Laurence said, actually served to lessen anxiety.

"You learn to live with those things because they're reassuring. They are signs that you are being taken care of. I've often said I felt more secure in Heathrow [Airport in London] than in Portland [Ore.] because of the security."

Like many others who lived where political attacks were common, Laurence said people did not give up living their lives. "It's like living in an earthquake zone," he said. "You do what you can do and recognize that everything else is beyond your control. Then you get on with your life."

Shankman, who moved to Israel 15 years ago, said Israelis play mental games with themselves to keep going.

"You tell yourself, ' I'm not in a dangerous neighborhood or I don't go to that train station, so it couldn't be me.' Until something happens and you realize that it could have been you.

"To some extent, you're standing on shifting sands."

A cafe is bombed; for a while people avoid cafes. A suicide bomber strikes a mall, and parents tell their children no more malls. But after a time, Shankman says, in what she considers an act of courage, Israelis again resume going to those places again.

Such decisions are deliberate. "We go back to living our lives because if we don't, we give the people who did this to us a victory."

No safer in United States

Recently, Shankman and her family spent a year in Maryland because her husband, a scientist, had been invited here to work on the human genome project. Strangely, she said she didn't feel safer in the United States.

"Apart from these [terror attacks in Israel], it's safe here. I can walk around here alone at night. I wouldn't do that in Washington. I don't have to tell my kids not to talk to strangers here. I do have to tell my kids not to touch strange packages."

Others who lived overseas expressed similar anxieties about living in the United States. "Honestly, I felt safer in London than in Cambridge [Mass.] because of the guns," said Laurence. "If you look at the statistics, that's reasonable."

Indeed, Katherine Yates, an anti-violence activist in Baltimore whose 16-year-old nephew was shot dead here last year, said that many people in the city's violent neighborhoods feel every bit as exposed as those in countries where people die in terror strikes. Many here are afraid to go outside at night and keep their children inside and away from windows. Others avoid certain neighborhoods entirely.

It's not unlike Israel, Yates said.

"When all the newspapers said this was an attack on America and we're at war, I said, 'No kidding. We've been at war. Urban America has been at war.' "

Israelis have expressed solidarity with Americans in the last week, but they have also wondered whether the United States will now better appreciate what the Israelis have experienced for years.

"It was interesting that in America, the first reaction was to seek revenge," said Shankman. "But when Israel suffers one of these attacks, the first thing the United States says to Israel is to calm down, be restrained, don't escalate the situation.

"Maybe America will understand what we've been saying all along. Terrorism is frightening."