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Fear Itself

Mizrahi is an adrenaline junkie. He loves Jerusalem, wouldn't live anywhere else, least of all Washington, which he considers too boring for words. He moves effortlessly through his city with his camera, chronicling the madness, absorbing it all with an attitude between stoicism and bemusement. He is an Israeli patriot, but no moralist. He says if he were a Palestinian, living out there in the occupied territories, in a life without hope, he might well become a suicide bomber, too.

Mizrahi has photographed more than 20 bus bombings in the past eight years. His portfolio is, in a word, heartbreaking. He knows that the vast majority of buses don't blow up, but he won't ride one, and he recently got angry with his wife when she did. "I can't help it," he said. "I see a bus, I see death."

"They got what they wanted." The March 11 Madrid commuter train bombings influenced Spain's election. (Pablo Torres Guerrero - El Pais via Reuters)

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Post staff writer Gene Weingarten discusses his story about understanding the psychology of terror (Monday, Aug. 23; 1 p.m.).

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"We have to ride a bus now," I said.

"Okay," he said. Work is work.

IT HAD BEEN TWO MONTHS since the last suicide bombing, an eternity in Jerusalem time. In the meantime, Israel had carried out brazen assassinations of Hamas leaders Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the latter an elderly paraplegic in a wheelchair who was considered the father of the strategy of suicide bombing. No Palestinian reprisals yet. So this was not the best moment, perhaps, to be riding a bus.

Mizrahi photographed both bombings of the 18, which came a week apart, in 1996. While standing on the roof of a building shooting down on the carnage of the second explosion, he had to step over body parts. On the balcony below him, he saw the bomber's head.

Before you get on a bus on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, you get the once-over from security guards who are posted at every bus shelter. These are tense young men in tan vests, with sunglasses and wires snaking down from ear microphones.

They fidgeted over Mizrahi, eyed me cursorily and let us aboard. The bus was packed. Jerusalem is a big city with no subway, expensive taxis, $3-a-gallon gas and bad traffic. Most everyone rides buses.

"I don't ride buses," said Assaf Gershoni.

Assaf Gershoni was our bus driver. He meant when he is off duty. Work is work.

A few minutes into the route, we passed a curious sculpture on the side of the road. It was a memorial, an enormous Star of David that appears to be made from scrap metal. It is. It is made from the twisted remains of the first No. 18 bus.

The people on the bus tend to be philosophical about their plight: What are you going to do? They will tell you their anxiety is reduced because of the guys in the tan vests outside, and because of the driver, whose judgment is, as far as they see it, the last line of defense.

This was interesting because at the bus stop, a tan vest had told us he'd never let his own relatives ride the buses. I asked Gershoni, the driver, if there's anything special he is trained to do if he thinks a bomber has just boarded his bus. Yes, he said. "When I see an Arab with a package, I say to myself, 'Please don't blow up, please don't blow up.' "

Anyway, this is not about what Israelis think as they ride a bus in Jerusalem. It is what an American thinks, on his first ride. An American watches every new person as he boards, prioritizing his concerns. Old woman, good. Old man, okay. Young, skinny person in tight clothes, no problem. Fat person: Is his flesh jiggling, or might it be something more rigid than protoplasm under that baggy shirt? Why is no one watching the back door? Someone could slip on, undetected, as a passenger gets off. No one is watching! Good, a soldier got on. But maybe that isn't good, maybe it makes us more of a target.

By minute 10, the American is pretty exhausted. But by minute 30, he's let down his guard a little. By minute 40, he has reached a state where he actually notices the pretty woman in shorts. Because, really, isn't that what life is about -- noticing the pretty woman in shorts? Isn't that what the human animal does? Life, as they say, goes on.

IN A PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPERIMENT IN THE 1980S, a group of municipal judges were asked to set bail for prisoners in mock criminal cases. Half of the judges were first asked to fill out a questionnaire about their own mortality. Those judges wound up setting much higher bails. Contemplating death toughened them. It reduced their compassion.

Mizrahi had one more place to show me before we said goodbye. French Hill is an upscale, Bethesda-like neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem. Attacks here are frequent; one of the most notorious occurred in March, when a drive-by shooting by Palestinians killed a 20-year-old jogger. The victim, apparently chosen at random, turned out to be the son of Elias Khoury, an Arab lawyer who had represented Yasser Arafat himself. Khoury had also lost his father in 1974 to a terrorist bombing near Zion Square -- the abandoned refrigerator that blew up, back when Mizrahi was a little boy. Nothing is ever over, in Jerusalem.

French Hill is a lick of land, a part of Jordan taken by Israel in the '67 war. It protrudes into the West Bank like a raised middle finger. Mizrahi led me to a corner patrolled by Israeli soldiers in camouflage gear, with assault weapons. I counted seven soldiers in the space of 60 feet. They were stopping everyone, even other soldiers, to demand ID. The center of the street was bisected by metal barriers. That is to slow up any suicide bombers trying to race toward the street corner from the Arab area. That delay will, with luck, buy enough time for the soldiers in the sniper's nest, up above us, to aim and fire.

This is not a war zone, exactly. It is a civilian bus stop.

The soldiers wore bulletproof vests. They were wary. The people waiting at the bus stop were wary. One Muslim woman, in a head scarf, was being detained by the soldiers because her papers were not in order. The woman was apoplectic, shouting that she was in Israel just to shop for new eyeglasses for her daughter. She commanded the embarrassed 10-year-old to show her scratched lenses to the soldiers, to the police, to the journalists, to random passersby. Over the soldiers' radio crackled a command, in Hebrew, to let the woman go. But the soldiers didn't. Twenty minutes had gone by, and it would be another 20 before they released her, so she'd learn from her mistake.

Never in my life had I felt so much ambient mistrust, fear and hatred in one place at one time.

And suddenly, seemingly from out of nowhere, a shaggy black dog showed up. She was Benji-sized, a little projectile of panting exuberance. She scampered up to everyone in turn, wagging her tail like mad, going person to person, saying howdy, ignoring no one, bursting with enthusiasm and slaphappy joy. For me, it broke the tension, and I found myself grinning. Then the dog wheeled around, raced back the way she had come and hopped into her cage on the back of a trailer on a military vehicle.

She'd been sniffing for bombs.

"The dread of evil is a much more forcible principle of human actions than the prospect of good . . . What worries you masters you."

-- John Locke

RICKI BERNSTEIN IS PEELING SWEET POTATOES. Her husband, David, is preparing the grill. Their extended family bounces in, one after another, gathering as is their custom for Shabbat dinner.

This is a family that never should have been. I know because I was at Ricki and David's wedding, 33 years ago in New York. She was 18, he was 19; out in the audience, my girlfriend and agreed it was a shame that these two good kids were marrying so young -- obviously, this union was doomed. Sensibly, my girlfriend and I waited longer. We're divorced now.

There is a Yiddish expression, bashert, which means that some things are "meant to be." It would be hard to find a closer family, anywhere, than the Bernsteins of Jerusalem. David -- "Bernie" to his friends -- is a history teacher and dean of a Jewish studies institute. Ricki is a therapist who specializes in the treatment of trauma -- a thriving, if dispiriting, business in this city.

They have four children, whose names suggest the cultural, spiritual and geographic journey that Ricki and Bernie have made since he and I were raising hell together on the NYU newspaper, 33 years ago. Their oldest, at 27, is Jessica. Daughter Ariel is 24. Their older son, Shai, is 21. Tani, the youngest child, is 17. Only Shai couldn't make it today; he is in the army. That would be the same Shai who used to lose fights with his older sisters, growing up. Now he's a member of a combat unit. All Israeli kids serve in the military.

One day not long ago, Ricki got a text message on her cell phone from Shai:

"It just said, 'I'm okay, I love you,' " she recalls. "It took me 20 minutes before I realized what that was about. It came on the news that two soldiers had been killed in an attack in Gaza. He was preparing me, telling me not to worry."

There is a skill to living in Jerusalem, a skill in taming personal terror.

"It's like a head game, a bargain you make with yourself," says Ricki. "It's a kind of denial you have to practice if you believe in living here."

"In my apartment," Jessica says, "the living room faces one of the main roads to the hospital. So I count sirens . . ."

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