The Magic Formula for Avoiding Suicide Bombers

When we told friends from home that we’d be traveling to Israel this month, one of them commented on our bravery, wished us a good trip, and as an afterthought urged us not to do “anything stupid.” Of course, this catapulted us into the following outrageously pointless airport discussion: Which sorts of activities—in a country at the mercy of lunatics with a death wish—are the “stupid” ones? Does “stupid” begin at the bank machine that was bombed last month or in reading your newspaper at a coffee shop? Is dashing to the supermarket for more tea stupid? In a world where they will kill you precisely because you’re doing everyday things, which places are dangerous and which activities are reckless?

It seems everyone in Israel has a different metric—some kind of individualized cost-benefit analysis with which they decide just how many risky behaviors they should undertake each day. My parents avoid downtown Jerusalem, but don’t object to shopping malls. An aunt stays out of Jerusalem, but has no problem shopping in Haifa’s open-air market. Some Israelis avoid public transportation; some only steer clear of the disputed territories; and others really only leave their homes when they have to.

When you ask people how they arrive at their personal danger formulas, you see that it has nothing to do with any sort of coherent theory of risk management. Instead, people seem to be deciding what is safe using elaborate mental graphs, plotting the experiences of their own friends or classmates on an X axis, what they’ve seen on television on a Y axis, and then multiplying it all by their human urge to lead normal lives, or, as my husband Aaron puts it, the “f—k it” factor.

This is actually somewhat familiar to Americans after Sept. 11. With each terrorist warning, new decisions await: You can stockpile water and stay away from the big cities, or take the kids to Los Angeles and pretend it’s all OK. You can avoid trains or take them, have babies or not, you can refuse to go to work in the Chrysler Building, or move to Vermont. But in the end, it’s impossible to know which choices will have been the safe ones. In a world in which we all may be at the mercy of terrorists, there’s no such thing as doing “something stupid” anymore. It’s really only stupid once the bomb has gone off.

So, with the exception of canceling your backpacking trip through Iraq this summer, there aren’t many things you can do to control what will be safe anymore. Instead of “risky” and “safe,” now there’s only “lucky” and “unlucky.”

Israelis put a lot more stock in the possibility of remaining lucky than Americans do. When we left for this trip, Aaron and I agreed to an elaborate formula for surviving a visit to Israel: We wouldn’t stay overnight in Jerusalem; we wouldn’t go to restaurants there; we wouldn’t go into shopping malls or supermarkets; and we wouldn’t stroll down pedestrian malls. But almost as soon as we stepped off the plane, life began calling. We gave in on the restaurants the first night (mmmmm, schwarma) and supermarkets on the second. We slept in Jerusalem on Sunday and stormed the shopping malls today. It’s not that we were being stupid. It’s just that the “f—k it” factor is so strong here, and—having endured suicide bomber after suicide bomber—Israelis have come to recognize that the safety formulas are utterly futile anyhow.

Tonight we hear on the news that there are new military warnings of Hezbollah attacks on the northern border. We’ve come to accept this with a shrug and what looks, at first, to be some kind of freakish viral Israeli denial. But it may not be the worst gift to take home with us tomorrow: a recognition that there are few safe places and fewer safe activities when madmen are determined to kill you when you’re feeling safest. The best course seems to do what they do here: Crank up the “f—k it” and live your life.