A story, told three ways

Here is a story I’ve told myself for a long time; the facts are as true as I can recall, and the structure is something I have given them, probably as a well-developed coping mechanism.  (This is a story from the second intifada; if that sort of thing is hard for you to read sometimes, you might choose not to read this.  I make that choice sometimes, sometimes it’s a good one.)

Here is the first version, that I have told myself and others for several years.

I was volunteering with Magen David Adom in Jerusalem in 2004.  The alarm went off in the station; without knowing what it was we all knew it meant a mass casualty incident.  We ran for the ambulances, and started putting on multiple layers of latex gloves to make it easier to change gloves between patients.  There were not enough flak jackets, but the driver gave me one, perhaps because I was the youngest, and female; rescuers had been targeted in the past by second bombs.  My heart was racing, and I was numb.  When we got to Derech Aza (Gaza Street), the street was unrecognizable, and what had happened to the people was unrecognizable.  There was a feeling of helplessness, anything I could do was very very little.  (I felt guilty about this for a long time.)   When we were done we got back on the ambulance.  I was still numb. I called my parents and told them, calmly, that I was ok.  A friend said, over and over, “we need to bomb Jenin, every time this happens we need to carpet bomb Jenin,” and I the numbness began to yield to horror because I know knew exactly what it meant, to the most minute detail, to blow up a place, to blow up human beings.  This is a feeling I’ve stayed loyal to ever since, if there is anything I believe above all, it is that I am opposed to blowing up human beings.

This was a comforting version of the story; it contained a measure of meaning, and allowed me to believe I was significantly different from my friend and those who agreed with him.

I recently remembered an older version of this story; it was the story I told myself for several months after the bombing. 

My heart was racing and I was numb. We were in the back of the ambulance on the way back to the station after the bombing.  My friend, a good and generous person, said, over and over, “we need to bomb Jenin, we can give them an hour warning to evacuate the city, and then we need to carpet bomb Jenin every time this happens, until they stop doing this,” and I was overwhelmed by a sense of horror, because I had seen in good people, people like me, the willingness to inflict the horror we had just seen.  I believed for a period of time that human beings were awful.  I said something alone these lines to my friend’s brother, and he said that was a terrible thing to say about humanity.  Whatever.

Two teachers (outside of my medical studies) have now told me “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart” and I realized that there is a third version of the story, that I told myself briefly, and then placed aside, finding it too hard to hold at the time.

Together with several other North American teenagers, I came to Jerusalem in 2004 to volunteer as an EMT with Magen David Adom.  We all had specifically requested to live in Jerusalem, and we all knew the suicide bombing situation.  We were in some way, I think, motivated by that situation, and driven by a desire to not stand by from across the ocean but to actually help.  None of us, I think, could imagine what it actually would be like.  When the bombing happened we responded to it, and did the best we could.  None of us thought we had done enough, none of us could have done enough.  None of us knew how to respond to what we had seen, and there was no real answer.  My friend said one thing in the ambulance, and I said another, but I don’t even understand what made up the difference, we were all careening emotionally all over the place.  How can I say there was any real difference between my friend and myself?  We were balanced on a knife edge, an incomprehensible situation, and we fell out as we did.  I called my friend back home, and I was crying so hard she thought I was laughing.  I told her, “it’s like slaughterhouse five, there is nothing to say after a massacre, just the sound of the chirping of the birds.”

This is the hard part: how can I say we were so different than the bomber?  Of course we were different from him, in a significant and crucial way.  What I don’t know is if any of us, in a different world, would end up all that different from him.  All I know about him is that he walked across the hills from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, boarded the number 19 bus, and blew up himself and everyone around him.  I don’t know what led to his action, and my horror and revulsion hasn’t lessened over time.  If I believe anything, I believe that I oppose with all my strength and life, what he did.

But the seeds of what he did are more common than we like to think, I saw them in my friends, and even, a little, in myself.  Another detail I leave out: there was a second bombing two weeks later, I had gotten stuck the night before on a bus driving through fog and gotten home at three in the morning, and I overslept my shift and missed responding to it.  That evening I walked to the corner on Emek Refaim street, where a makeshift memorial of candles had been set up.  The teenage son of a woman I knew had been on that bus on his way to school, and she had buried him that afternoon.  I saw in myself the horror, even more helplessness than the previous time, helplessness to save her son, to save anyone, and I also saw in myself destructive rage.  I see these seeds in everyone who says “there are no civilians in Gaza,” or “maybe Palestinians should resume violent resistance.”  These are people who are good and loving that I am speaking about, every one of them is conscientious and generous.  The line between good and evil doesn’t run between us, dividing us; it is a thread that runs through all of us.

With love,

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