Closer Than You Think

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A friend once taught me how to handle those uncomfortable moments when your sketchy knowledge of world news is about to be exposed by someone who has been scouring the news.

You're at a cocktail party and someone mentions Chechnya.

Instead of saying, "Gee, I have no clue what's been going on there for the last six months or year," just say, "What happened today?" as though you had a clue about what happened yesterday, last week, last month and last year.

This year, our ignorance is catching up to us. The gaps in our knowledge of world events have made us vulnerable. Made us over-react and under-react.

We don't know what is real and what is not. We don't have the edge we need to be skeptical, whether we're handing over our civil rights or denying the rights of others. It doesn't take much to be manipulated, and it's easy to frighten ourselves.

We know terrorists are here in the area, but we can't tell who they are. So, we suspect our neighbors. We turn on one another.

There was plenty of alarm in my own neighborhood when someone pointed out that a new resident — who was Middle Eastern — vanished with his family days before the Sept. 11 attacks. As the weeks passed without their return, someone notified the FBI. Someone else dug through the garbage the family had left behind. The timing of their disappearance made everyone assume the worst.

Finally, the family came home from vacation. Can you imagine how those people would feel if they knew how their neighbors thought and behaved in their absence?

This change in our world at home is causing all of us to question who we trust and who we don't. It's hard to imagine what it would be like to deal with the nightmare of Sept. 11 every day of the year. But now, as we start asking ourselves how we are going to deal with terror here, it becomes more important to understand it elsewhere. Particularly in the Middle East.

Florida is seven times larger than Israel. When you hear of conflicts in Gaza or the West Bank or Jerusalem or Ramallah, it's hard to grasp how close everything occurs. Israel's most populated areas are between 9 and 21 miles from the occupied territories — the distance from Tampa to Lutz, or from Brandon to the airport.

We couldn't cope with that madness. Here's what last week would have been like in Tampa Bay if we had to deal with the type of violence going on over there:

Today, a Palestinian suicide bomber wearing an explosives belt blew himself up at The Pier in St. Petersburg.

Yesterday, a Palestinian gunman emptied his M-16 in the middle of the Hyde Park shopping district, killing two and wounding more than 40 others. Police are still sweeping the area for bombs. Only two months ago, Palestinian bombers killed themselves and 11 others there. They wounded another 188.

Israelis killed four Palestinians yesterday, raiding their explosives lab in Largo.

Cops located and detonated a bomb downtown.

Yesterday, Israelis shot one Palestinian — a cop — and wounded three others in Brandon. Israelis executed a 30-hour sweep in Venice and took over the city. Israelis killed two and injured 15 others.

An Israeli soldier was shot at the airport, and 12 others were wounded. A day earlier, Palestinians tried to kidnap three people at West Shore Plaza. Israelis blew up the Palestinian radio station. A day before, Israelis started shooting in a neighborhood in Forest Hills. They also bombed a Palestinian security facility in Bradenton, killing one and wounding 20 others.

Six Israelis were killed and 33 others were injured when a Palestinian gunman burst into a Longboat Key bat mitzvah and shot the guests.

That's how close it all happens. Generally, a quick drive from one death site to the next. When we see it in headlines, we're numb to it. It isn't real. We don't read it.

But, that is how people live over there, and that's why the fury is so intense when it rages over here.

My then-husband and I traveled to Israel during the first intifada. On the first night, sirens blared through the shopping district as we — and others — were evacuated while bomb squads moved in. We barely got inside our hotel room when an explosion illuminated our dark room for a brief moment of panic. Then came the second explosion and the third. Finally we were brave enough to open the curtains and look. This wasn't an attack; it was a fireworks display for the opening of a new performing arts center. We went outside to watch the sky fill with life and color amid the chaos.

The violence doesn't stop, but neither does the living. I once interviewed a young woman who survived the civil war in Liberia, and her words never left me. Remember Liberia? Of course you don't. Few of us noticed as soldiers dressed in drag stole, killed, raped and pursued a mission of genocide. Death squads lined citizens up for the kill, or tossed babies into the air and shot them just for sport. "Terror and fright used to be something that I knew from a movie," Genevieve Sangudi told me. "Something that comes at you from the dark. But, this terror is a fear of humans. You can't turn the light on and make it go away. You can't call the police. It is a fear of the capacity of human evil. You are afraid of what lies in other people's eyes. Their ability to commit indescribable atrocities. That makes you afraid of humanity — your own humanity."

That's why what's happening in Israel is a local story. It's our humanity. All the fire over whether University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian belongs on campus or not shows us how hot that fire burns. I've been struck by how some people think they have the right to pound their opinions into us on this issue. That's not their right, but it's our place to find our opinions for ourselves. It affects what civil rights we want for ourselves and others. It affects our security and future. It affects how we want to live. Senior Editor Fawn Germer can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 134, or [email protected].

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