My family moved to a new apartment in Tel Aviv when I was in the fourth grade. As the youngest of three siblings, I knew I would get the short end of the stick when the time came to choose our new bedrooms. I didn’t put up much of a fight. The room that I wanted was the smallest in the house — just a bit larger than a walk-in closet. It was our in-unit bomb shelter. In Israel, all apartment buildings built after 1992 are required to have them — rooms with thick walls, a large metal door, and a heavy metal window. I wanted that because it made me feel safe. If there was ever a red alert siren at night that didn’t wake me up, I knew I would be safe in that room.
Those were constant thoughts growing up in Israel during the second intifadah — a period of armed resistance of various Palestinian groups against Israeli occupation in the form of terror attacks against civilians. My school had an armed bodyguard, every shopping mall and public building that I entered had a metal detector, and my room was a bomb shelter.
My childhood’s built environment told me at all times: You are under attack.
I thought about that environment a lot, especially in the last year. In my second week working for The Inquirer, a gunman entered the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital Gazette and murdered five staffers. The conversation around the country was about the role of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against the media in galvanizing the shooter. Inside newsrooms, the conversation was about safety. The results of that conversation were new bulletproof glass in our lobby, and live-shooter trainings.
Newsrooms are not unique in barricading themselves. Just last week, the Philadelphia Board of Education voted to require all district high schools to use metal detectors. After the massacres at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, some called for armed guards and metal detectors in houses of worship.
Fortifying schools, newsrooms, and houses of worship comes at a cost. There is a growing body of literature on the negative impacts of stress on health. Turning our landscape into a monument of existential threats adds a lot of stress to our society — which is already overburdened, isolated, and ridden with despair.
I called my Ima (the Hebrew word for mother) in Tel Aviv this week to ask if she thinks that growing up in this hyper-security-oriented environment impacted me. Saray Gutman, a book publisher in Tel Aviv and my Ima, told me in Hebrew: “From a very young age, you were primed to think that at any moment something can happen. Primed to look for ‘the enemy.’ Where will be the bomb? Where will be the next terror attack?”
In the context of Israel, that priming means you learn that people who look Palestinian are “the enemy.”
She remembered that when I was a kid, every time a guard in the entrance to a public space skipped inspecting me I would say: “Why didn’t he check me? I don’t look tough enough?”
“It was very funny,” Ima told me, “but at the end of the day, what you were saying is ‘Why don’t I look like the enemy?,’ and that shows a demonization of those considered the ‘enemy.’ ”
Being constantly inspected also made me more suspicious and, in hindsight, normalized racial profiling. Every inspection was a reminder that people who look like me aren’t the ones they are looking for. That’s how cultural racism is ingrained — by small daily reminders that discrimination is necessary for the overall good, even though that’s just not true.
Just like mass shootings in the U.S. are a fact of life, it is undeniable that these security measures are in place for a reason. In 2012, when the first red alert siren since Desert Storm was sounded in Tel Aviv after two rockets were shot from Gaza, my family and I ran to my childhood bedroom for shelter.
But fortifications alone won’t stop terror attacks in Israel or mass shootings in the United States. They are a Band-aid. In both cases, to ensure safety, we have to address root causes. In Israel, that means ending the occupation. In the U.S., that means addressing the childhood trauma, availability of firearms, and social isolation that motivate and allow a person to pick up a weapon and commit a mass shooting.
“The worst part of all of this is that it became our normal,” Ima told me. “When we come to visit you in Philadelphia and go into a bookstore, we are shocked that we are not inspected.”