Terrorism today is not what it was a century ago—or ever. Its patterns changed—from assassinations aimed to punish specific targets to what perpetrators called “motiveless terror” against civilians. Presently, unnoticed by most, they focus on the creation of “fear zones.” They do so by intentionally targeting children.
In a cross-border raid from Lebanon on May 15, 1974 gunmen from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), affiliated with the PLO, took 102 students and their teachers hostage in the northern Israeli town of Ma’alot, which the children from Safed visited during a school trip. Some managed to escape by jumping out the windows, but when the IDF special unit assaulted the building, the terrorists detonated hand grenades and sprayed the 14-16-year olds with machine-gun fire, killing 21 and wounding 66. On June 1, 2001 an Arab suicide bomber blasted himself and yet another 21 Israeli teenagers in the “Delphinarium” disco in Tel Aviv. In 2002 the Chechen terrorists have chosen the Moscow Dubrovka theater as their site during the “Nord-Ost” musical based on the novel The Two Captains by Veniamin Kaverin, a favorite travel adventure story for the young audience.
On September 1, 2004, amid the “Day of Knowledge” festivities, at least 32 heavily-armed, masked terrorists held hostage 1,200 children, their relatives, and their teachers inside School No. 1 in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia, in the former USSR. This terrorist act yielded at least 334 dead, among them 186 children; over 700 were wounded. Violence against children soared to a new level.
Beslan is a town of relatives; everyone has familial ties to everyone else. Even distant family members are very close, so much more the siblings, little ones are frequently left in the care of their older brothers and sisters. In this traditional community, for decades people live on the same street or in the same house and are more than neighbors: they spend a great deal of time socializing, celebrating birthdays and holidays together; they have common troubles and memories; their children grow up as playmates and “share moms.” Prisoners inside the school constituted approximately 3.3 percent of Beslan’s 35,500 inhabitants, but by orchestrating the holdup, the extremists aimed at every household and the locality as a whole: by murdering and maiming hundreds of children, they mutilated the town.
Psychologists who have been treating victims in Beslan have designated it as a “special place,” a “death space” or “zone,” analogous to “zones of sadness,” which instantaneously mushroomed from Ground Zero into areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, as far as Staten Island and New Jersey on 9/11. In Beslan, one and all have experienced dying and bereavement and are suffering from collective traumatization, as well as individual intense post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders. Their sense of time is broken into “before” and “after” the violent incident, to which the residents refer as “the event” or simply as “that” (as in “when that happened”). Everyone agrees that “Beslan is a very sick place.”
Parents took the bodies of their children murdered in Ma’alot for the burial in their home-Safed; the “Delphinarium” and the Dubrovka carnages horrified, yet did not stop the lives of citizens in metropolitan Tel Aviv and Moscow. But Beslan became a closed “infected sphere,” explain the locals; it is like living in a cemetery.
The town of Sderot is the Israeli “trauma zone.” With few fatalities, it is not a site to pick up sensational news items; random and inaccurate Hamas qassam fire from Gaza has become almost a regular event. The shelled town is another instance where, overlooked by most observers, modern terrorism has reached a new phase by specifically targeting children.
There is a “Qassam generation”–kids who over the last eight years have been growing under the rockets, terrorism being the hallmark of their daily life. A Sderot child is aware of the location of every bomb shelter on his way to a local store; some prefer to walk forty minutes to school every morning instead of ten because the circuitous route has better protection; others argue that the safest way is to run all the way. During periods of heavy shelling, parents keep them at home for days or entire weeks; even during ceasefire school attendance is sparse, often as low as 60 percent. Like children in Beslan, their peers in Sderot react emotionally to loud noises, such as those of a thunderstorm or even a voice.
Every playground is equipped with protective shield. Some slides and climbing walls are under metal covers; the make-believe tunnels and labyrinths are made of concrete pipes, so that small children could play inside in relative safety. Each child has his own sophisticated routines and safety rituals for performing most ordinary tasks; in that generation, there is no one who has not been deeply traumatized by habitual threat of violence. “Qassam” is the word always in people’s minds and on the tip of the tongue: when a science teacher asked her little students why a lizard needs its scales, everyone in class knew: “Against the Qassams!”
The “death space” that the terrorists have succeeded in creating in Beslan by way of the massacre of children, in Sderot has been systematically constructed over the course a decade. The Qassam rockets are very imprecise and do not inflict great casualties, but as it turns out, not much bloodspilling is necessary to keep the town population in perpetual fear, as long as it is sustained over a long time and reinforced systematically. “A present for the start of the new school year,” the Islamic Jihad website flaunted the terrorists’ September 2007 missile attack, which sent twelve kindergarteners to the hospital for shock treatment.
Sderot is damaged with collective anxiety. At present, the full extent of the trauma is known only indirectly; for example, by evidence of symptomatic panic, tenseness, insomnia, nightmares, diminished concentration and ability to perform regular tasks, periodic aggressiveness, depression, as well as high percentage of powerful tranquillizers prescribed to town residents; psychiatrists have classified dozens, if not hundreds, as handicapped. Mass fear is not a cut-rate sacrifice, when the devotees of death are incapable of showing themselves as free-handed as they had proven to be in the Ossetian town at the other end of the world. And, having demonstrated quite a commitment to destruction in the designated “fear zone” of Sderot, the terrorists have also tried their hand at transforming larger communities into similar sectors of terrorization in the cities of Beersheba, Ashkelon and, recently, Jerusalem. On March 6, 2008 students were massacred in Merhaz HaRav. Two weeks ago, most of the wounded were teenagers: a bomb was set to detonate at a bus stop at 3pm. when children return from school. Yesterday the terrorists fired an anti-tank weapon at a school bus.
Health and safety of children are among the very few impervious values in our skeptical post-modern reality. Terrorism came to direct itself specifically against that which remains ethically and socially sacred, revealing itself as a brutal form of counterculture. Its proponents inevitably had to strike against children — the quintessence of vitality, of sparkling aliveness, the most vibrant and spontaneous of the living. They are the very life that is being sacrificed because the terrorists “love death.”
All references are from Anna Geifman, Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia (Praeger Security International).