Va. Tech shooting: Defense mechanisms

Americans and Israelis starkly differ in their handling of security in the aftermath of mass murder.

Virginia shooting 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Virginia shooting 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
When Anat Elazari got to the Virginia Tech campus Monday, she vaguely noted extra cops milling around the dormitory next to the building she was heading toward. She didn't dwell on them, since she often saw officers at the university. As she approached the door, she noticed in a perfunctory way that no students were on the road around her, or indeed outside at all. That also didn't give her pause; she chalked it up to the unseasonable cold and snow. And so it happened that the 24-year-old engineering graduate student spent the entire morning within 300 meters of a bloodbath that claimed the lives of 33 of her classmates and professors. With nothing to rely on but nebulous rumors of an incident on campus, Elazari remained oblivious until she went home and saw the chilling news account. Once she found out the extent of the atrocity, she felt many emotions, shock and sadness high among them. But not fear. "You'd think it would be scary," the Tiberias native, who has been studying at Virginia Tech for nearly five years, reasoned. "But growing up in Israel, I've been next to terror attacks. That stuff happens. As soon as you figure out that everyone you know is okay, you move on with your life." She added, "For a lot of the Americans here, this is the first time they experienced something like that, so it's a lot harder." As it turned out, there was another Israeli at Virginia Tech Monday who was even more intimately connected to the tragedy than Elazari. Liviu Librescu survived the Holocaust only to suffer under the communist regime of his native Romania. In 1978, he succeeded in bringing his family to Israel, where he could have more academic freedom. He went to Virginia Tech for a sabbatical in 1986 and ended up staying on at the university, where he taught aeronautical engineering. On Monday, when he understood that a murderer with a gun was coming toward his classroom, he kept the door shut with his own body so that his students could escape out the window. In doing so, Librescu was shot and killed. Upon hearing the story of what Librescu did, "the first thing that occurred to me about it, besides the tragedy of it, is how his heroism was informed by his experience as an Israeli," remarked William Daroff, director of the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities. "He clearly had thought about terrorism as an Israeli and, with a split second to respond after hearing a gunshot, went into autopilot, barricaded the door with his body and gave his students time to flee. Being an Israeli, having that mentality of how to deal with this sort of crisis comes more naturally." IF THE reaction of two Israelis caught up in the Virginia massacre was different from that of their American peers, how much the more so for the nation. The examples of Elazari and Librescu suggest the ways in which the responses in America and Israel would diverge, both in terms of coping with the emotion unleashed by the event and dealing with the security risks it exposed. When it came to the latter after the 2002 bombing at Hebrew University, the actions of the Israeli authorities were swift and comprehensive. The school effectively shut out the general public, sealing off the porous campus perimeter, beefing up the number of guards monitoring entrances and refusing to allow non-university ID holders on campus without a pre-arranged sponsor. Such hands-on security methods are unlikely to be implemented at American campuses, which, for one thing, are simply too big. Size is one of America's defining elements, and the expanse of college campuses is no exception. The grounds of Virginia Tech, for example, span more than 10,500 dunams. The Hebrew University had to bolster the fence surrounding the campus; in America there are no fences. "What are we going to do, put up a security fence? It's going to be like keeping out immigrants?" Brandeis Prof. Jacob Cohen asked facetiously. Cohen teaches in the American Studies department and has for many years given a course on violence in America. He suggested that new types of security measures which scrutinize students, such as monitoring e-mail exchanges and sharing information on their behavior, might be more likely. But even there, he said, "there'll be tremendous resistance on free speech grounds and among civil liberties groups." Reflecting on the leftist tendencies of American college faculty, Cohen decided, authorities wouldn't even try it. And anyway, he said, imposing strict security measures on college campuses goes against the American spirit: "It doesn't mesh with the concept of learning and transparency and freedom." IN ISRAEL, there's no such spirit. "If you ask any kid in America, they will tell you what the First Amendment is, the Bill of Rights. It's really deep. It's under the skin of Americans," said Uri Dromi, the head of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute, who points out that Israel doesn't even have a constitution. In the Jewish state, he said, "The question of civil liberties is always in the shadow of security." Israelis ask, "If you don't exist, what's the [point] of having civil rights?" he noted. "The first right is the right to live, and this is what Israelis get in the milk of their mothers. There's security and then, thank God, there's democracy. People in America value democracy first." While the debate rages in America about the balance between these poles, Israel has already come out with a balance, said Dromi, who's seen some of that debate up close in the last few days. He arrived in America on Tuesday to hold a conference titled, appropriately enough, "Democracies Fighting Terror: What Can Israel and the United States Learn from Each Other's Experience?" Dromi has been struck by the intensity of Americans' reaction to the Virginia Tech shooting. "The big difference is that for them it looks out of the blue. For us, it's a sad way of life," he said, referring to the "routine of terror" that Israelis have gotten used to. "Once they have this kind of basic preparedness in the back of their minds, if this happens, people don't fall off their feet, [thinking] that something unthinkable has happened, which is the feeling that people have here today." The shock of the event has exposed a certain naivety on the part of Americans, he continued - the eternal question of why anyone would want to hurt them. It is the same question, whether the attack is the work of an Islamic extremist or a disturbed student railing against his surroundings. "Israelis are more resigned to the fact that the world is a terrible place, and terrible things happen, and you learn how to cope and protect yourself," he said, pointing to ubiquitous guards at restaurants and cafes as one sign of this protection. "In a way, it [the security] is always this reminder that terrorism is there, that bad guys are trying to harm you. Therefore, when it happens, it doesn't come as such a [shock]." Yet there is at least one response to the tragedy that is shared between the nations: reading Ecclesiastes. And nothing underscores that better than the way in which the selection was recited at Tuesday's memorial service, held in the very building where Elazari spent Monday morning. The next day, filled with 10,000 Virginia Tech students, staff and community members, Elazari recited Ecclesiastes in Hebrew, as the campus's American Hillel director read the English translation. "To everything there is a season and time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die," she said. "A time to mourn and a time to dance."