Bombings Bolster Commitment to Life

As if mocking the scenes of jubilation at London’s successful 2012 Olympics bid, the terrorist explosions that came the next day left devastation in their wake.

In all our synagogues, British Jews are joining our prayers with those of others, grieving for the dead, praying for the injured and sharing our tears with those of the bereaved (see story, page 14).

Terror has become the scourge of our age, and it will take all our inner strength to cope with it. I have met far too many victims of terror: survivors of the Istanbul synagogue bombing in 2003 and the 1994 terrorist attack on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires; in Israel, where almost everyone knows someone who has been affected, as well as survivors of the massacres in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo.

Like others, I have wept for the broken families and shattered lives and the injuries, physical and psychological, that may never heal.

But I have wept also at the courage of the victims. Each year, I go with a group to perform concerts for people who have suffered terrorist attacks. One we met was an 11-year-old boy who had lost his mother, father and three other members of his family in a suicide bombing. He himself had lost his sight.

In the hospital ward, the boy sang with the choir a hauntingly beautiful religious song. We had gone to give him strength; instead, he gave us strength.

Terror fails and will always fail, because it arouses in us a profound instinct for life. Will we ever forget the heroism of the New York firefighters on Sept. 11, or the courage of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 or the kindness of strangers who brought comfort to the traumatized survivors?

Terror makes us vigilant in defense of what we otherwise take for granted: the sanctity of life, the importance of freedom and the countless natural restraints that allow us to live together in safety and trust.

Free societies are always stronger than their enemies take them to be. Enemies of the West mistake its openness for vulnerability, its tolerance for decadence, its respect for differences for a lack of moral conviction.

Britain has exceptionally strong links of friendship among its different faiths and ethnic communities. That is a vital source of stability when nerves are frayed and fears aroused. London itself has a long history of courage. That, too, was evident in the calm that prevailed on July 7.

The best response to terror is not anger, but the quiet strength to carry on, not giving way to fear. I think of Judea Pearl, father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who has become a campaigner for deeper understanding between Islam and the West. When I asked him what motivated him, he replied, “Hate killed my son, and you cannot defeat hate by hate.”

I think of one of the most promising young men our community has produced, 19-year-old Yoni Jesner, who was killed in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing. His family, out of deep religious conviction, donated his organs to save lives — among them a 7-year-old Palestinian girl who had waited two years for a kidney transplant.

Michael Walzer, a leading American political theorist, has written, “Terrorists are like killers on a rampage, except that their rampage is not just expressive of rage or madness; the rage is purposeful and programmatic.”

Its victims, deliberately, are the innocent and the uninvolved: workers in an office, passengers on a train, passersby on a pavement. Its aim is fear. It advances no interest. It has no conceivable claim to justice. It dishonors any cause it claims to represent.

The real answer to terror was enacted in London and elsewhere five days before. Millions of people took to the streets and parks to demonstrate their solidarity with the victims of poverty in Africa. Their methods were peaceful, their weapons were song and celebration, and their greatest strength was the justice of their cause.

The people with whom they were identifying — the hundreds of millions of children who lack food, shelter, clean water and medical facilities, sustenance and hope — have never resorted to terror to bring their plight to the attention of the world, nor did they need to.

The choice humanity faces was set out long ago by Moses: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

The strongest answer to the forces of death is a renewed commitment to the sanctity of life.

This column first ran in the Times of London on July 9, 2005.

Sir Jonathan Sacks is Orthodox chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth and associate president of the Conference of European Rabbis.


Reflections on Ground Zero

I had not intended to go to New York. Instead, after having helped launch Los Angeles’s Threat Preparedness Task Force, my focus for the past several weeks had been on practical measures that our city can implement to be better prepared in the event of a catastrophe. My brother, who now lives in Brooklyn, had suggested that I travel to New York and visit Ground Zero to develop a firsthand understanding of the urgency of my work. Although I believed that the media had made me well aware of the scope of the devastation in the financial district, I followed his advice and flew to JFK.

My brother was right. The most enduring memory I have from my visit to Ground Zero is its vastness. It is impossible to grasp the extent of the damage and destruction from the televised images.

It is as if Century City ceased to exist. It is as if you could look from Olympic to Santa Monica boulevards unobstructed. It is as if all that lay between the Music Center and the Central Library were dirt, debris and dust. The scope of the damage — the amount of dense, urban, human environment completely laid to waste — is simply overwhelming.

Ground Zero is a beehive of activity, giving the misleading impression of a giant construction zone. Tangled beams and steel supports twist skyward, seemingly the products of the early stages of a new Frank Gehry composition. But of course, that is not the case — the steel girders that remain are all that is left of the strong buildings that the twin towers collapsed onto on Sept. 11, 2001.

We passed countless storefronts still caked in dust. We stopped in front of a Wall Street Brooks Brothers store, which ordinarily would be immaculately maintained and teeming, and saw instead only dust, boarded-up windows, and charred walls. We could see how the floors on many surrounding buildings had pancaked on top of one another, and peered through ragged openings in the ground to the Cortland Street subway station.

The devastation had a random quality to it. Some buildings near the epicenter had been spared, while companion structures just yards away stood decimated.

There was a vast emptiness where the towers themselves had once stood — just a gently rolling pile of rubble over which bulldozers and cranes swarmed. There was prodigious activity — welders breaking the steel into smaller pieces, heavy machines digging and loading, and a parade of trucks leaving the site piled with debris. We saw firefighters continuing their grim, unreported task of searching for human remains.

From Ground Zero, one can observe dozens of skyscrapers, many blocks away, whose windows are shattered and whose exteriors remain covered in protective netting.

The shells of some buildings at Ground Zero were still standing, and in many respects, these skeletons were the most difficult sights to take in. You can see through the windows into the office spaces. You can visualize people sitting at the their desks in window offices, and the bustle of clerks, computer technicians, and executives on a sunny Tuesday morning.

All the while, seven weeks later, smoke continued to billow from the center of the site, often enveloping the recovery workers. Firefighter cranes poured a steady stream of water into the burning hole, with no apparent effect.

We walked to a viewing platform, which has been erected at Ground Zero. The wooden railing was already defaced by the most gut-wrenching graffiti imaginable. "Jimmy Waters — Your family loves and misses you for the rest of our lives. Love you always. Rest in peace." I saw love notes to lost firefighters, signed "Mom," as the smoke swirled around us.

A police officer approached and brusquely asked us to move along. We complied, at first not understanding his abruptness. At that moment 40 people, each holding a bouquet of flowers, each clutching a teddy bear, and each bearing a sticker stamped "Family" ascended the viewing platform. We left quickly, overcome not only by their sadness, but by the realization that their grief accounted for such a small portion of the overall atrocity.

As our van left Ground Zero we passed through a "Wash Station" where departing workers scrub down when returning to civilization. Our van was hosed down to remove the dust that had accumulated in under an hour.

That day, I recommitted myself to doing whatever I could to make sure that Los Angeles takes the necessary measures — and makes the necessary sacrifices — to be prepared in case the unthinkable happens here. Already, our task force has recommended a series of practical security measures that the city will implement in the short term.

  • We will protect first responders in the police and fire departments by purchasing new "escape hoods" to enable them to respond to biological and chemical attacks.
  • We have also recommended increasing the size of the LAPD’s bomb squad and Hazmat teams, fully staffing a third Hazmat team in the Fire Department, purchasing additional bio-detection equipment, and permanently assigning police and fire personnel to the county’s Terrorism Early Warning Group.
  • We will also focus on long-term issues, such as increasing the size of the LAPD’s Anti-Terrorist Division, planning a system for the emergency distribution of medicines, and providing new training for police officers and firefighters commensurate with the new sorts of threats we face.

I realize the enormity of our challenge. It is hard to fathom what it would take to be fully prepared for the new battles that our enemies now seek to take to our soil. But we must try.