It’s sad to say, but hearing terrible news from back home in Israel while visiting my family and friends in the United States, has become part of my summer vacation routine.
Last year it happened in mid-August, when I was sitting in my parents’ home in Rhode Island enjoying breakfast on their porch. In the peaceful and quiet New England suburbs, learning from my laptop that had been mortarsfired from Sinai into Eilat and that worse, a bus had been ambushed by terrorists in the Arava desert, with seven Israelis killed, was alien and surreal. I had to obsessively follow the news online for several days to make it feel real - in Israel, you can feel an event like that all around you.
This time the bad news greeted me upon arrival in Los Angeles on Wednesday evening. Exhausted after two long international flights, I had stumbled into my hotel room and begun unpacking, in order to get it over with so I could collapse.
My teenage son of course, had other priorities. Having been denied online access for so many hours, he needed his fix immediately. He pulled out his iPod now that he finally had access to WiFi, and saw that Facebook was buzzing about something that had happened in Bulgaria. I dismissed it with a wave and told him I was busy.
Bulgaria? I figured the incident must have involved some internal Eastern European dispute that I had yet to become acquainted with and continued filling drawers until I felt that I had done enough to earn my sleep.
When I woke up (at 3 am, naturally, with jetlag) I was finally coherent enough to check my own computer. That’s when it hit me - in a place I had never heard of, Burgas, there had been a horrific terror attack.
Then came the familiar wave of guilt. I’ve felt it on previous summer vacations when terror attacks or wars happen while I’m away (and, let’s face it, they seem to happen more frequently in the summer).
Back home in Israel, everyone would be consumed with funerals, mourning and recriminations - in the media and on the street, people would be talking about what had happened, who had been lost, and what the implications were. It seemed somehow wrong to be going about my business of sightseeing with the kids, having fun, and enjoying myself while all of it was happening.
After Eilat and Burgas, I felt a layer of specifically socioeconomic guilt added to the mix. I am among the lucky segment of the population which can afford to travel abroad individually and anonymously in Western countries. The odds of something happening to us are far lower than those who take less pricey vacations to Eilat, or go on a group tour to Bulgaria, travelling in a bus full of Israelis. The guilt somewhat reminiscent of my feelings during the wave of bus bombings during the Second Intifada - there were those of us who could afford to avoid the bus by taking cars or taxis everywhere and those of us who couldn’t. It wasn’t fair to be able to buy your way out of danger.
It didn’t help my guilt that on our second day in Los Angeles, we took the kids to the Universal Studios theme park, where much of the entertainment were amusement park rides and stunt shows involving imaginative scenarios where things blow up and explode and people attack one another. It seemed perverse to be entertained by such things, watching people laughing and applauding war and destruction. But after I went on a ride simulating a destructive earthquake, I figured if Californians could put that in perspective, I could do the same with the explosions.
But my overall guilt wasn’t the fact that I was on vacation at a theme parks - it was the luxury of being in safe carefree America, where one could move freely - at least in safe neighborhoods and in full daylight - without even considering the possibility of being gunned down or blown up.
Or so I thought.
In less than two days, that all radically changed. Suddenly, it was America’s turn to be devastated with the news of gunman James Holmes who turned his weaponon moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.
It was strange to watch Americans, so unused to the ritual of coping with such an event, go through our Israeli rituals in the media - poring over the details of the attack, telling the personal stories of those who fell, dwelling about the small decisions that meant the difference between life and death, and of course talking endlessly about why it happened.
I found that the essential difference between our experience and theirs is that we know why it happened. We may argue over how it would be prevented, the political decision that one side or the other could make such attacks more or less frequent. But essentially, we know why.
With an event like the Colorado shooting, there is the senselessness to deal with. Americans can argue, of course, whether tougher gun laws would or would not haveprevented a smart guy like James Holmes from his destructive mission. But the essential ‘why’ lies not in the public sphere but in the twisted psyche of the killer.
The media is now examining every aspect of Holmes’ personal life, and every blink and twitch in the courtroom, trying to figure out whether or not he is proud or his actions or remorseful, whether he is evil or simply crazy.
I honestly don’t know if it’s better to live in our Middle Eastern reality and be under threat from specific people for a specific reason or have to live with the feeling in the aftermath of such an event in the U.S. - that this is a society, where every so often, people snap - and liberal gun laws could allow them to easily acquirethe arsenalthat would allow them to wreak havoc.
In either case, it makes it awfully difficult in either country to truly kick back and relax on their vacation.