Monday, December 8, 2008

What are you looking for?

Security is a fact of life in Israel. So much so, that we sometimes take it for granted. We automatically open our purses as we enter public buildings; we stop to explain and let the security guard analyze our risk factor. They are experts - it takes them mere fractions of seconds to determine whether we are likely to explode ourselves and kill those they are charged with protecting or if we too may pass through his gates and become one with those he watches.

There is no time to be polite or socially correct here. We are a nation that would rather not insult people, but we understand the most basic of truths - better to insult than bury your dead. Better to delay a few, than deal with the horrible aftermath of a security check gone wrong. Because we understand this, we are, for the most part, very understanding about the delays. An intelligence warning that a suicide bomber is en route to one of our cities, will cause traffic jams for hours. I've missed personal events because I was stuck sitting in a car waiting to slowly go through, car by car, a checkpoint. Each car was searched, each person understanding the alternative would be so much worse.

Yesterday, Elie and I drove to the mall. A few weeks ago, we had been there to drop off something that needed to be fixed and yesterday, we decided to go and pick it up. Last time, as the guard approached the side window, I went to pop the trunk of the car with the internal lever near the driver's seat. At the same time I was bending down to pull the lever, Elie pulled out his army ID card. As I pulled the lever, the security guard looked at the car and said, "Shalom, Achi." Achi means "my brother," and is not just a greeting between boys, but an incredible thing that I love about Israeli society and culture. It means we are connected; it means, I know you as my brother. It's another one of those very Israeli things, like the slaps on the back between soldiers, the handshakes and the quick hugs.

So, with a flash of an army identity card and one quick "Shalom, Achi", we were passed through. No additional security check was needed. I laughed as I drove through and asked Elie why he didn't tell me he was going to do that. The trunk was now bobbing in the back window, needlessly opened because the guard didn't need to check beyond the fact that I had an armed soldier in the front seat.

The trunk bounced a few times as I drove up the ramp and parked the car. That time, the army ID card was Elie's way of showing the guard that he was legally allowed to carry the gun. And with that card, all manner of assurances were wordlessly exchanged. The car is safe. I'd know if there was anything wrong.

"He didn't check anything," I commented to Elie as I went to close the trunk.

"What's he going to check for?" he replied rather smugly. "I have an M16 and I showed it to him."

Good point. OK. So yesterday, I pulled into the underground garage with Elie sitting in the front seat beside me, in uniform, with his M16 leaning on the floor against his leg. As he did the last time, Elie pulled out his army ID. The guard looked, then asked us to open the trunk.

"What are you looking for?" Elie asked him, clearly astounded that his card wasn't working as expected this time. "All you are going to find is a backpack filled with dirty army uniforms. The gun is here."

"I know," said the guard. "It's dumb," he continued as he moved to the back of the car. He opened the trunk, looked around as they always do, gently closed it, and returned to wave us on.
"That makes no sense," Elie said to him again. "What are you looking for?" The guard couldn't really give him an intelligent answer. Certainly not before Elie continued, "A nuclear bomb? What do you think you are going to find, when I have a gun right here?"

"He doesn't really have a choice," I told Elie, but we both agreed it was kind of dumb to focus on what someone might be hiding out in the open in their trunk when he's got a semi-automatic machine gun (is that the proper description of an M16?) within reach in the front.

We parked the car and went inside. There are things that make no sense in life and Elie still has no patience for them. He has never been one to suffer fools or foolish things lightly. Many months ago, Elie watched as a guard was talking to someone else. Israelis are accustomed to automatically stopping, automatically waiting until the guard gives them the required attention. We'll open our purses before being asked, place our keys and phones and metal objects on the table to be searched before the guard can open his mouth.

This guard was busy looking in the other direction talking to someone and Elie (while not in uniform but carrying his M16) just walked right through the metal detector up to the door of the mall with his gun. I was behind him and realized right away that the guard wasn't really paying attention. The metal detector went off and the guard turned.

"It's too late," I said to the guard. "People could have died because you weren't looking. Someone with a gun just got to the door." Yes, the gun was from the Israeli army; the man carrying it was a soldier. This time, I told the guard and others behind me agreed. Of course, I wasn't thrilled with Elie either - what if the guard HAD reacted? With the arrogance of youth, Elie tells me that he was prepared for that.

The consolation for the guard, despite a bit of public embarrassment, was that Elie didn't want to kill anyone, but really, the truth was that there are others with guns who would quickly have stopped an attack. That is what happened in Jerusalem when the Palestinian rammed his car into the soldiers from Elie's unit, when two Palestinians drove tractors into buses and people in Jerusalem on two separate occasions this past year. Quick-thinking civilians and security personnel stopped them.

Elie has little patience for fools and a guard looking into a trunk after already being told that there was someone with a weapon in the car seemed utterly silly. But the truth of Israel is that I'd rather have the guard be over-cautious. I'll take the guard who looked in my trunk any day compared to the one who carelessly let an armed man (not dressed in uniform) approach the doors of a shopping center.

What I realized, in watching Elie's impatience, is that with age comes the ability to accept what is fundamentally illogical. What is one more thing in the scheme of things we accept? Elie is still at the age where he fights against this, where he still believes that logic will prevail.

It is not logical for the guard to search beyond the front seat of the car when the person in the front seat already possesses in his hands the ability to cause great harm. A person who has a bomb in the trunk shouldn't have a gun in the front seat and so a person who legally has an army-issued rifle in the front seat, by extension, probably doesn't have a bomb in the back. Elie wore the uniform of the army of Israel. That means he has promised to protect; it should have been clear to the mall guard, or so Elie and many others assume.

Some guards, like the one who said, "Shalom, Achi" understand and so they do their jobs logically, quickly and efficiently eliminating the need to search everyone. All benefit because the line goes more quickly and the job is still done. Others, like the one who insisted on opening a trunk with dirty laundry, follow the rules set for the job.

It reminds me of a story my mother told me. She was in Germany, waiting to pass through security to travel to Israel, and the guards chose her for the advanced security check. They didn't want to insult anyone, so they applied this security check not based on perceived threats but on random numerical selections of people in line. She was chosen.

In astonishment, she turned to the guard and asked, "How many 67-year-old, Jewish grandmothers hijack planes?"

There is no logic in having searched my mother's suitcases; no logic in demanding to search my trunk the other day at the mall. In a place where decisions must be made in seconds, we often don't have time for the politically correct. If a certain profile has a much higher likelihood of carrying out terrorist attacks, most of our security guards will not spend more than a fraction of a fraction of a second on a 67-year-old grandmother (Jewish or otherwise).

That is security; that is the way of things in this day and age. And so, there will be days when the lines are longer and slower, but again, the main job is still done. People pass through the entrances to the malls safely and are able to shop in relative peace. Both types of guards, those who search all equally but slowly, and those who focus on the most likely to harm, are integral parts of our nation and I accept each as I pass through yet another security check.

With age, Elie will learn to be less astonished by those who defy the logic that is obvious to him. But watching him in any number of situations, I have no doubt that he will be a "Shalom, Achi" person; he already is. He won't search those who do not need to be searched; he'll check and be careful, but he won't follow the rules without following the logic upon which the rules were based.
For that too, I love him.


joyce said...

But, what if a terrorist dressed in a Israeli uniform and carried a gun and card he had stolen from a soldier?? Then you would want him to check the trunk. Come on, the enemy adapts and observes when/where guards are relaxed, or distracted.

Please be careful what you reveal here. You don't want to be giving the enemy ideas.

A Soldier's Mother said...

Hi Joyce,

Please don't worry - I am VERY careful what I post here in all messages. I have had Elie tell me, "and this is NOT for the blog." There is nothing secret in the blog; nothing the Arabs don't already know, and nothing they can use to do anyone harm. The malls (and hospitals) are filled with Arabs who are also allowed to pass through security. They will be the first to tell you that they are carefully checked by security. The guards are trained very well. They look, they listen, and they know very easily that Elie is clearly not a security threat. I won't write why...but it is clear. His ID card is clearly authentic. His manner of behavior is what would be expected. Beyond those factors are many others.

Years ago, you could even buy army uniforms in some stores. This practice has been stopped, but there are still enough uniforms out there that the guards know not to trust just this.

It is a combination of many things that alert the guards and no, I won't say what things - but I can tell you that they are amazingly quick in identifying a threat. When you put ALL the threat factors together, you'll quickly see that the guard was correct in passing us through and would not likely be fooled by an Arab terrorist dressed in a uniform, carrying a gun - with or without the army ID.

Essentially, what identifies us as safe - cannot be duplicated, cannot be faked or copied by the vast majority of terrorists.

I give no ideas to the terrorists on how to hurt our soldiers or our people. I have only one idea for the enemy - surrender...or, at least stop fighting and make peace.

Please understand, I do appreciate your concern. But also understand that there is a difference between being relaxed - such as the guard who said "Shalom, Achi" and being distracted. He was not at any time distracted or less than professional. He did what he was supposed to do and not for one second did I feel he was being less than observant. And the guard at the mall that WAS distracted?

What I left out, but will add in now, was that she was distracted by her commanding officer who, I believe, placed himself off to the right of where people entered on the left to test her. She failed.

We left after giving her a hard time...and hearing her superior officer say quite seriously, "I'll handle this." I have no doubt that he did. As I wrote - security is a very real issue here and we all watch; we are all on alert.

Elie has passed through security checks and not been satisfied - and he has found the proper authorities and complained about the level of security. And without a doubt, as much as Elie would complain about the guy opening the trunk "needlessly" - he didn't give the guard a very hard time, didn't argue with him and certainly didn't do more than share a moment of frustration that the guard feels as well.

George said...

I can never understand why, when I am wearing a shirt and shorts, I get the metal detector passed over me front and back, yet the Arab woman in flowing robes is allowed to pass through without so much as a second glance.

A Soldier's Mother said...

It's a secret. If we told you, we'd have to kill you :-)

I don't know the ins and outs of the factors they used; some are obvious to me while others are not. (And even if I did know, I wouldn't post them here.)

What I know is that day in and day usually works - and I hope it keeps working.

joyce said...

Thank you. Here in the USA you can buy all sorts of uniforms at army supply stores. It is scary.

Please continue to be careful. 20 of the Bombay terrorists are still unaccounted for.

I enjoy your blog. I have two sons in the military here in the USA, and a lot of our concerns are the same, but it is like you are walking the path ahead of us. And we can learn from you.

A Soldier's Mother said...

I've always told people that what often starts in Israel, reaches the rest of the world. It's so true. The US really became aware of suicide bombers and the utter horrible reality of terrorists after 9/11. We've lived it for decades.

Our latest threat is a nuclear Iran...what starts in Israel, quickly reaches elsewhere. Iran is not "just" our problem, just as terrorism was not just our problem.

What the world now has to do is learn many of the ways Israel has learned to identify these threats and handle the aftermath. I can't help but feel that so many people in India might have been saved, if the Indian army had better training in how to have handled such a threat.

Anonymous said...

The story about your mother made me laugh, because the week after 9/11 in the US, my 80 year old grandmother got pulled aside 4 different times in one vacation. Apparently, she had a HUGE obsession with cuticle scissors (the better to groom you with) and kept trying to sneak them through security checks...the week after America "lost it's innocence". She just couldn't understand why a woman named Miriam was seen as a security risk.

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