America the Vulnerable: Has U.S. Become a Nation of Soft Targets?
When her cousin and 11 others were gunned down at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last July, Anita Busch lost all interest in her favorite television crime dramas. And when she heard that three people had been shot dead at an Oregon shopping mall in December, she stopped her Christmas shopping and sneaked out the back door of a department store.
“After Aurora, even my little niece who’s 11 was afraid to go into a mall, to go shopping,” the Los Angeles woman says. “I look around all the time. I think everyone does.”
The United States proclaims itself the world’s foremost economic and military superpower — the mightiest nation on Earth, “land of opportunity” for those who want to work hard and prosper. But as Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon illustrate, the reality is that, from sea to shining sea, this is a nation of “soft targets,” full of opportunities for those who want to do it harm.
And so the message Tamara Ruben sought to convey to her third- through seventh-graders as they celebrated Israeli Independence Day Tuesday at Temple Beth El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, N.J., was to not let fear rule them — “that as much as possible not to let this event to dictate our daily life and make us afraid and paranoid and change drastically our style of life.”
“Enjoy the simple things — the simple things that give us contentment and joy in life,” says Ruben, director of the synagogue’s school.
Like Busch, so many Americans have a visceral reaction when the backdrops of everyday life — a school, a supermarket, a mall, a sporting event — become places of violence and tears. The Boston bombings had Tricia Kaye second-guessing, if only briefly, her decision to participate in her fifth Chicago Marathon this October.
“I had that kind of gut reaction that there’s no way to secure a race like that, and that it’s better not to do it,” said the 35-year-old Chicagoan, who works for a national financial planning company. “But it quickly changed to ‘Screw that, I’m going to do it.'”
Lt. Christopher Shane Henderson, a firefighter and paramedic in St. Petersburg, Fla., says he can’t take his 20-month-old daughter to the circus or a fair without the specter of 9/11 or some other tragedy casting a pall.
“This absolutely impacts how you view people,” the 33-year-old father says. “I think it’s pretty disgusting that people can’t go to places and enjoy things with our families without the idea lingering in our heads that somebody has malintent.”
Psychologist Timothy Strauman says these reactions are only too natural. Growing up in Philadelphia in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Strauman remembers the “duck and cover” drills and the signs pointing out the nearest nuclear fallout shelter.
“What we felt then was, you know, the WORLD could come to an end,” says Strauman, a professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “Mutually assured destruction — that was the policy.”
Personally, Strauman — who specializes in depression and anxiety — feels much safer today.
“Anytime a high-profile event like this occurs, one of the things that it does is it makes people think that the event is likely to happen again,” he says. “It changes our sense of how likely this is to occur … and so it makes it very difficult for people in the immediate aftermath to stop and realize that it’s still an extraordinarily rare event.”
It doesn’t feel that way, says Busch. Her cousin, Micayla Medek, was just 23 when she died in a hail of semi-automatic gunfire during a premiere for “Dark Knight Rises” at the Century 16 cinema last year. Busch listens in despair as politicians debate whether to debate tighter restrictions on high-powered weapons with high-capacity magazines.
“When you go through so much trauma, your perspective on life changes, your belief system changes,” Busch says. “You lose your innocence and, at the same time, you go back to a point of innocence. … It’s like you just want to go home, and your definition of home is different.”
Despite the tragedies the United States has faced in recent years, Ruben says the nation as a whole is “still at the stage of a great deal of naivete.”
Ruben was two weeks old when her parents fled Iraq in 1950. She was going to high school outside Tel Aviv in 1967, when Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Egyptian forces in what has come to be known as the Six-Day War.
Since then, the Israeli occupation has been met with Palestinian resistance — including suicide bombings, which crested in the early 2000s.
“The Western mind cannot really perceive the will to lose life, to kill yourself, to send your children with a complete purpose of killing yourself and others,” Ruben says. “This is a concept that is so foreign to the democratic American mind, even though 9/11 happened right in the heart of America. It raped America in such a violent way. I don’t see that that is interpreted as something that really exists and can come to here and hit home in such a way — that it’s an isolated case, that there are excuses for that, that they were disturbed people.”
American parents have long warned their children “not to talk to strangers.” In Israel, Ruben notes, television ad campaigns instruct kids on how to spot a suspicious package, and to report it.
Her two adult daughters live there now, and it is nothing to them to have their bags inspected or to automatically pop their trunks before driving into a mall parking structure.
“It’s so much part of the culture, and you don’t even blink,” she says. “They know that they need to do these things in order to be safe.”
Unlike Israel, the United States has friends to the north and south, and two oceans as a natural defense. But any sense of American invulnerability is an illusion, says Paul LaRuffa. The Hollywood, Md., man has a running discussion with a friend about how far government should be allowed to go in the name of keeping the public safe.
More than most Americans, LaRuffa has some real skin in the game.
On Sept. 5, 2002, LaRuffa had just closed up his Italian restaurant, Margellina, and was preparing to drive home when his car window exploded. A man shot LaRuffa five times at close range, took a briefcase containing about $3,500 from the back seat, and left the restaurateur for dead.
He was still recuperating from his wounds when a sniper (or snipers) began stalking the towns and cities up and down Interstate 95, turning the simple act of pumping gas into a game of Russian Roulette.
“I went through that whole paranoia,” he says. “I was scared like everybody else.”
It wasn’t until the three-week spree had ended that LaRuffa learned that Lee Boyd Malvo — one of the so-called “D.C. Snipers” — was the man who’d shot him.
“It affects how I look at life and living life and enjoying life and valuing life,” the 66-year-old retiree says. “But it doesn’t affect me where it haunts me or I look over my shoulder or I avoid going certain places.”
LaRuffa has listened to the discussions about unmanned drones patrolling U.S. skies. He sympathizes with those who argue for armed guards in every school following the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead.
But, he says, “We can’t arm every square foot of everywhere.”
“We don’t want to live in a country where there ARE no soft targets,” he says. “There will always be evil, and we can’t get rid of it. We can try like hell to lessen it, but there are limits to what we can do and what we should do.”
Kaye, the Chicago marathoner, is dealing personally with those limits. Normally, five to 10 friends and relatives gather on the finish-line grandstands to cheer her on. This year, she’s telling them to stay away: “Unfortunately, I don’t know that I’ll feel comfortable with them watching me finish ever again.”
But Dr. Paul Heath has learned that despite your best efforts to avoid it, trouble may still find you.
On April 13, 1995, the psychologist was at work in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office on the fifth floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City when a young man rang the doorbell. The man introduced himself, and Heath inquired whether he might be related to a local family with a similar-sounding name.
“Dr. Heath,” he recalls the man saying, “remember my name is McVeigh, but you don’t spell it ‘McVay.'”
Six days later, Heath was buried up to his armpits in debris, staring out into the void created by a fertilizer bomb that Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh had parked out front. The explosion claimed 168 lives — including 19 children — and injured nearly 700 others. But it did not defeat the doctor, who helped found a survivors’ association after the attack.
“We live our lives with the memory that that’s possible, but we don’t hide behind a wall for fear that somebody’s going to do something to us,” says Heath, now 77. “There have always been individuals and groups with negative objectives, and there always will be.”
But, he adds, “We’re still America.”
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