I was watching my children chase fireflies in our New Jersey town of Closter when the siren from the local fire house momentarily set my body on full alert. The plaintive wail, rising and falling, seemed to emanate from the heavens. I closed my eyes and let the sound transport me back to a cold Jerusalem night at the start of the first Gulf War, when sirens signaled fears of poisonous gas, not emergency calls to the volunteer fire department.
It was twenty-three years ago and Israel was on high alert, watching uneasily as the U.S. tried driving Iraq’s army out of Kuwait with nightly bombing runs on Baghdad. Saddam Hussein was threatening to retaliate by “incinerating half of Tel Aviv.” Could Saddam be reckless enough to attack Israel? At 2.00 am on January 17th, when sirens blasted the news of incoming scud missiles, we learned the answer. He was.
“Nachash Tsefah” (Hebrew, for viper or venomous snake) blared the recorded announcement on TV and radio. Run to your sealed rooms! Don your gas masks! Breathe deeply and stay calm! The sub-text was clear: beware not only of conventional warheads that can destroy buildings, but missiles tipped with chemicals that can tear apart your lungs.
As a CNN Jerusalem correspondent whose lungs also needed protecting, I too would don my gas mask, unaware – at least that first night – that the world was watching me. As sirens wailed, I raced to CNN’s offices where producers were frantically trying to get us on the air. With fingers trembling, I placed the gas mask over my face, willing myself not to pass out as CNN became the most watched network on the planet.
Remarkably, as the adrenaline kicked in I felt a surge of clarity. Standing in front of the camera with CNN bureau chief Larry Register I described through the mask my lonely dash to the office, unsure if there was poisonous gas in the air. Amid the panic and confusion we confirmed the truth about whether chemical warheads had been fired at Tel Aviv (they hadn’t) and held back from revealing the location of where missiles had landed, certain that army censors would immediately take down our satellite dish. As night turned to dawn, I took out an atropine pen and – with Larry – demonstrated where Israelis were supposed to stick themselves if they felt the effects of a chemical attack.
It was the first war being reported in real time and it was exhilarating; the modern day equivalent of being in Tahrir Square with a cellphone posting pictures of the Egyptian revolution on Facebook. Only my war, twenty-two years earlier, was unfolding on television screens and the star was the satellite dish. Even Saddam Hussein, it was rumored, was watching us.
By the seventh night of the war, when air raid sirens had become annoying, I tossed my gas mask aside, confident that Saddam’s threat to use chemical weapons was a bluff. By week three, the siren whined only occasionally. Was Saddam losing interest in luring Israel into the war?
The answer came during a live interview with then Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was making the rounds of the foreign television networks. I was pressing Bibi on when Israel would retaliate when suddenly we heard the unmistakable shriek of a siren, signaling incoming scuds. Did you hear what I heard? Bibi asked me. I did. Reluctantly, I agreed to continue the interview through gas masks. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if this was designed to keep people from switching channels. If there was one thing CNN and Bibi had in common, it was recognizing a good television moment.
As always, Mr. Netanyahu was the picture of confidence. I, on the other hand, felt like an aardvark. I struggled to talk from inside the mask, unsure if anyone on the other side understood a word I was saying. “How much longer will Israel absorb missile attacks without responding?” I asked, aware that a retaliatory strike would complicate American-led efforts to drive Iraq’s army out of Kuwait.
“I must say, this is the darnedest way to do an interview,” Netanyahu said, laughing. He knew the impact he was having on CNN’s international audience. “What it does show, however, is the threat that Israel faces. I cannot tell you when, I cannot tell you how, but Israel will defend itself.”
Israel never responded to Iraq’s provocation, but Netanyahu did shake up the world that night on live television. The bizarre but gripping image of an Israeli minister being interviewed through a gas mask accomplished exactly what he knew it would. So compelling was the picture, splashed across newspapers the next day, that no spoken words were necessary.
I left the office that night under a cloudy Jerusalem sky. For the first time in a week, I decided to take my gas mask with me.