HERE, ON a warm May morning in 1970, are the five Rosenfelds leaving the home of their still-sleeping hosts in Forest Hills in Northwest Washington en route to the Mall. They could be your average tourist family -- from the Middle West, perhaps -- but in fact they are from the Middle East, from Jerusalem, where their father has long been stationed as a news correspondent with NBC. And, appearances to the contrary, they are not your average Americans any more. They are, down to the 6-year-old, paranoid.
Observe. A taxi has come for them and the driver has already reached behind him and opened the door. The Rosenfelds, however, are clustered at the doorstep staring at a small spray can that advertises itself as a shaving cream sample. It has been left there by persons unknown and it does indeed contain shaving cream, but the Rosenfelds think it's a booby trap. While they know how to behave in such instances of terrorism in Jerusalem -- form a circle about the suspect object, link hands and keep others away until the bomb squad arrives -- this is their first home leave for five years and they aren't sure of the drill in Washington. They are about to consult the cab driver when their host opens the door, examines the mailbox, points out that the taxi has arrived, picks up the spray can and goes inside.
The Rosenfelds have reached the Mall intact. They are eating popcorn as they amble toward the National Museum of Natural History. One of the children goes over to a trash can and looks inside before depositing the empty popcorn cup. An identical carton litters the path. The child eyes it and leaves it there, earning a disdainful glare from a passer-by who demonstratively picks it up and tosses it into the trash. The child immediately hangs her head and brings her right shoulder up in a decidedly foreign gesture, holding this pose for a count of three. This is the defensive posture of an unrepentant Israeli child of any ethnic background who is confronted by an accusing adult. In this case it is the body language of a kid who would no more handle a discarded popcorn cup -- or pick up a wallet on the street or kick a Pepsi can whose chain of custody has not been established -- than she would accept a ride from a passing stranger with a pocketful of candy.
Multiply her by the requisite number and you will have every properly instructed child in the Greater Washington area if terror -- the real stuff, not an occasional brush with a gun-wielding crazy at an airline ticket counter -- is blown into our lives on the dying gusts of Operation Desert Storm. Now that the Chinese can do no wrong, not even when they run over people with tanks, do they still make button mines? As mines go, Chinese button mines don't do a lot of damage, but a small child squatting over one to examine it can lose an eye. Button mines are made of crummy, pale gold plastic like the el cheapo toys you aren't supposed to let babies chew on. A bit bigger than a coat button and some what thicker, they have small detonator nipples instead of thread holes. Before the PLO decided to switch tactics, button mines were imported into the Middle East from the People's Republic of China in great number for use against Israeli civilians.
My friend Ann, whose husband was a New York Times correspondent in the heyday of the button mines, remembers the morning routine in the little park near their Jerusalem apartment. There were the 2-year-olds, she says, her daughter among them, with their pails and shovels and their mommies or the maids, waiting for the man with the rake who made sure there were no mines in the sandbox.
After all, what else would you do with a button mine except leave it on a beach under a thin layer of sand for a barefoot swimmer or wrap it in something intriguing like money and leave it on the sidewalk or disguise it as candy and leave it in a schoolyard? After awhile, the Israelis fenced in their schoolyards.
I remember seeing a button mine only once, on a beach. Button mines are almost sand-color and hard to spot, but the rim of this one had been exposed, perhaps by wind, and there was a circle of people in bathing suits around it. They threw rocks at it until it went off. Button mines can be lifted by the edges, I have been told. It is pressure on the little nipple in the center that sets them off. They cannot be defused.
Booby traps are a cottage industry. The whole family sits around the table busily wiring up canned goods, dolls, small radios, toys, wallets, gift-wrapped parcels, chocolate bars and -- yes! -- canisters of shaving cream to be placed where they will do the most harm. Every now and then, someone gets careless and blows up the whole house, killing all the toilers. I don't know what they do now (I really don't want to know), but back in the late '60s, when the Israelis found out who planted a booby trap, they arranged a speedy trial and a long prison sentence. Then, in a gesture that carries its own ironies, they mined the house of the bomb-maker and blew it up.
Bombs come in all sizes from little ones in street corner trash cans through bigger ones in packages left under seats in movie houses, cafes and buses to car bombs that can demolish a whole city block.
The bomb squad was called if a parcel was forgotten on a bus, or a glove found wadded on a street corner. Or if -- this happened to my husband -- a foot-long lantern battery, which had long been on the way from the United States, was absent-mindedly left in a bank. By the time we phoned, the battery had been taken to a safe place, dunked like a suspected witch and, like a witch, acquitted because it was dead.
The police organized an education squad which visited schools. Little kids were learning to run to mommy instead of picking things up. The son of the people who owned a popular toy store lost a foot to a booby trap. Coffee cans exploded in supermarkets. Departure check-in at the airport was moved ahead, first one hour, then two, and passengers were body-searched and their cameras and small electronic gifts scrutinized. Along the borders with Jordan and Lebanon, the army deployed an armored car with a sort of cow-catcher protruding from its front end; on this, his face inches from the dirt road, lay a Bedouin tracker whose job it was to detect the slightest disturbance in a carefully brushed grid which was renewed at dusk each evening.
Somebody ought to tell those kids who are freaking out over sick bomb-scare phone calls to schools that real terrorists don't warn you. And somebody ought to import a few Israelis to teach Americans survival techniques, starting with the last thing you'd expect of a population threatened with attack: trust. We have to re-learn an old value -- involvement -- if we are to deal with this new threat rationally. In the aggregate, Israelis are not your typical charm school graduates -- they're brusque and argumentative and they often die rather than yield the right of way, both literally and figuratively. But one of the first things a newcomer to Israel finds out is that Israelis don't run away from a suspicious explosion -- they run toward it. Israelis talk as though they don't care, but they act as though they do.
Sure, it's a war mentality. Coping with unremitting violence carries a heavy cost. But, looking back, I feel that we adjusted to terror better than we knew. We opened our handbags and turned out our pockets before we entered public places and we got used to the sight of middle-aged druggists or lawyers in the uniforms of the civil guard patrol. If, after an attack on a school bus, our kids' tour of nature preserves was cancelled, we -- and they -- took it in stride.
As it happened, the anxiety and resentment we felt surfaced when we finally found ourselves outside the larger discipline of a community which so freely acknowledged shared danger.
I never felt so exposed, so helpless, so crazy in Jerusalem as I did during home leave, watching my children avoiding booby traps, bombs and button mines on the Mall in the midst of safety. And the only time an act of terror ever reduced me to tears was when -- it happened to be while I was driving past the Mall -- I turned on my car radio just in time to catch a bulletin announcing the blowing up of the Marine barracks in Beirut.
It scared the living daylights out of me.
Judith Rosenfeld is a Washington writer.