March 20, 2003 - As the American invasion of Iraq begins, Israelis anticipate a possible repeat of the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein attacked Israel with scud missiles

By the time Kol Israel Radio reported, on a rainy, windy night last week, that the invasion of Iraq was finally underway, we were supposed to have prepared ourselves for war. But like millions of others around the world, in those hours edging up close to the unknown, I had no idea if we'd gotten ready.

I had been obsessed, in the preceding days, with the flowers on our porch, which was as good a preparation as any. I bought two bags of fresh dirt, transplanted some white nasturtiums into new clay flower pots, threw out the petunias that hadn't weathered the recent snow, and spent hours pruning, meticulously plucking off winter's dry leaves.

In the 1950s, Americans who were optimistic enough to build fallout shelters were criticized scornfully by their compatriots. How could a concrete bunker, naively fitted out with air filter and a two-week supply of bottled water, protect you from a nuclear firestorm equal to a hundred Hiroshimas? Even assuming you and your family did somehow make it into the shelter in time, and shut the hatch successfully against your neighbors, what kind of landscape would eventually greet you if you survived -- if you hadn't melted down into the concrete of the underground chamber? What would you dine upon when your supplies ran out? No way, anymore, to pick up a quart of milk at the supermarket. Busses would not be running. And what would you plan on breathing in the brave new world, once the dust settled and you emerged into the radioactive light, or darkness, of day?

Today it's duct tape and plastic sheeting that stand between us and death. Several months ago, a local hardware store ran an irresistible sale on attractive, ready-to-use Family Survival Packages. "It has everything you'll need," the salesman persuaded me. Two rolls of tape (an extra in case of nuclear attack?), six feet of plastic sheeting, a transistor radio, an emergency lamp, a big flashlight (already fitted-out with batteries), and an appealing little first-aid kit complete with syringes. Did I ask if the syringes were filled with atropine? I thought: needles, but was curiously lacking in curiosity. It didn't occur to me to wonder how many injections we were getting, and whether the antidotes would be effective for both smallpox and anthrax.

Survival for 250 shekels -- around $50. It seemed a bargain. But when it came time to prepare our sealed room, for the life of me I couldn't remember where I'd stashed the Package. Just as was the case during the first Gulf War in 1991 -- when it was not only the nifty gas masks themselves which proved to be obsolete, but my suburban American brain -- my mind balked dumbly, stubbornly at the seriousness of our situation. Every time, back then, when the sirens would start wailing, what came to my mind in our sealed room was the Beatles' line, "You have only waited for this moment to arrive." Gazing at our petrified little children, all in a row, as they sat staring back at us for reassurance from behind their long-nosed masks, wondering if we were going to die, what else was I reminded of? The indefinable rubbery odor inside my stuffy gas mask evoked nothing other than the chlorine-saturated swimming goggles of my Connecticut childhood, excellent for high-diving into the country club pool.

Today, Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia, Russia, Iran, South Africa, Argentina -- and Iraq -- surely have their own memories to ponder as we again await the possibility of attack, but in one respect we Israelis seem remarkably of one mind, these days. We are possessed, as a nation, by an uncanny calm, a remarkable bravery. The ongoing terrorism, especially that which has taken place during this last period, seems to have wiped out any vestigial notion that there is such a thing as safety measures. To live one's life has become synonymous with risking one's life. It seems we love, more than ever, the simple phenomenon of being alive, alive here, in our land, and have gotten to the point of not wanting to relinquish that love to any fear.

I am surprised at myself, surprised at everyone. I am proud of us.

The windows of one room in our apartment have now been taped shut with plastic sheeting -- a task carried out by the same child who in 1991 forgot, one never-to-be-forgotten night, to drag in his dear, frayed security blanket when we entered the sealed room. Back then, in our innocence, we wouldn't open up, even for that. We were believers, still, in plastic sheeting, and gas masks, and bleach-soaked towels placed under the door. Today, who among us trusts that salvation would arise from our sealed rooms, were Saddam, feeling cornered, ever to fulfill his declared ambition of becoming the modern Nebuchadnezzar, going down in history as the one who finally came up with a Final Solution?

I asked a Palestinian taxi driver a few weeks ago if he thought Saddam would attack Israel if America attacked Iraq. He said, "Yes, I think so." I asked if he thought Jerusalem, in such a case, would be safer than other cities, given its large Arab population. He shook his head. "No. Saddam doesn't care," he said. "Look what he did to his own people. Look what he did to his sons-in-law." (He had them executed.)

I asked, "What about Arafat? Do you think he cares about your people?"

The driver's eyes shifted uncomfortably in the rear-view mirror. He replied, reluctantly, "No."

"Is there any Arab leader who does care?"

Silence. Then: "No. None." This is the open secret that the Palestinian taxi driver and I share. It's not Saddam's unconventional weapons which constitute the unparalleled danger to his own people, and to all of us here on earth, but rather, his conventional weapon, the ancient one: cruelty. That, and the indoctrinated hatred which serves as its fuel, are the supremely low-tech factors which can turn a bus into an inferno, a plane into a missile, and a young man or woman into a bomb aflame. In a war such as this, security measures are as effective as security blankets, and antidotes deliverable by syringe only as effective as those delivered by the flowers on our porch. For a sealed room is no protection against a sealed heart. Such deliverance is delivered within.