The first thing you understand when bombs are falling and Kalashnikovs are chattering and the cordite mixes with the screams and the sissss of downed wires and the twisted epithets of hooded men, is how fast everything is happening. My barber’s shop, and the barber, in West Beirut was there one moment and gone the next — no exposed plumbing, smoking debris, or spooky rebar — just a foundation and a whole different street. Your neighbor’s Volkswagen, after a night of shelling, is parked on a third-row balcony. There are sirens and shouts, and everyone is running to anyplace else.
Every tall building becomes a probable sniper’s stage. Tanks show up and run over whole neighborhoods, ambulances bump over bodies and careen toward the mayhem, and there are never, ever, any birds in the sky.
Paris or Beirut, Istanbul or Mumbai or Mombasa, Oklahoma City all come at you wild, headlong, unannounced, and everything shatters: most notably trust and her sister, peace. If this can happen, you say, what else? Had I stood there, gone to that bar, that game, or that bodega, I would be as dead as the dead there? And, is it over? Will there be aftershocks or tremors, which presage more? Or are the monsters spent, and will there be time to mop and sweep and bury? And, if I make it home, back to the apartment, will my street be next? Is bed safe? What is really under the bed?
Terrorists know all about loss. They know what emptiness is. They are attuned to and rehearsing for radical, stunning change coming out of the wings and landing on the stage with a thump that rattles the theater rafters and threatens to bring the curtain all the way down. They want others, the innocent, to taste their emptiness, their surrender of autonomy and self-possession. They know they are lost and don’t want to be alone in the desert or some unapproachable cavern.
When it’s happening you can’t accept anything as ever being, again, enduring, safe, or predictable. The air might be poisoned or just irritating beyond tolerance. Your hearing is fuzzy at best, your eyes watery. You can’t find who you came with. All the cops, when they come, are as scary as the hidden or, hopefully dead, killers. There is a sense you will not ever be the same. You probably won’t look at a street the same way ever again, and you know, even then, you will be the less for it. This is not an adventure, or a good story to tell in the kitchen at a party. You just want it to end and to have never happened at all.
Fear is hard on the body. We are supposed to feel it in spurts when the bear roars or the forest fire kindles. We are evolutionarily poised to do something, and here, there is nothing to be done but duck, watch for flying glass, and hope the gleaming missile headed this way doesn’t have your name on it. All the atheists, infidels, and apostates pray. Everyone is apologizing to people who are somewhere else; this is when promises, insane and heartfelt, are made.