The Bali bomb was horrific. But comparisons with 11 September are wrong.
The Bali bomb caused a terrible loss of life. That, we know. But it hasn’t stopped people from speculating all too quickly about all the things that we don’t know.
The car bomb that exploded outside the Sari nightclub at Kuta Beach on the night of 12 October killed over 187 people and injured more than 300. The Bali resort is a favourite among Western tourists, in particular young Australians. According to one news report, the death toll included Balinese, British, French, Germans and Swedes. But it is expected that Australia will suffer the highest numbers of dead and injured.
One aspect of this atrocity that seems particularly shocking is that the dead were young tourists, defenceless, blameless, unsuspecting. Why blow up a nightclub? We don’t know – nobody has yet claimed responsibility for this attack, let alone given a reason. But in the world post-11 September, commentators are reading into the attack all kinds of explanations of their own.
When 11 September happened, nobody knew how to react. Here was an unprecedented act of terrorism on a massive scale, aimed directly at America’s political, economic and military institutions, causing the deaths of 3000 innocent victims. The world reeled with shock as it tried to make sense of a senseless act of violence.
The reaction to the Bali bomb, however, quickly seemed to follow a script. ‘It’s like Ground Zero’, said the voiceover to camcorder footage of the immediate aftermath of the bomb blast, which was played on the BBC television news. The attack has quickly been dubbed ‘Australia’s 9/11’. ‘People should get out of their minds that it can’t happen here’, said Australia’s prime minister John Howard, in an echo of what US politicians said about terrorism in the wake of 11 September. ‘It can, and it has happened to our own, on our doorstep.’ (1)
Speculation abounds about those responsible for the bombing – were they terrorists, which terrorists were they, do they have links with al-Qaeda, what precisely are those links with al-Qaeda? And while little (if anything) is known about those responsible for the bombing, there is an earnest discussion about the role played by the war against terrorism in encouraging them to commit this atrocity.
Some say that this shows the failure of Bush’s strategy in combating terrorism; others blame the war against terrorism for actively causing these attacks, by encouraging insurgent groups, putting the idea into individuals’ minds, splitting up al-Qaeda and encouraging its members to ‘freelance’, or centralising al-Qaeda outside of Afghanistan (see Was bin Laden behind Bali?, by Brendan O’Neill).
The fact is, we don’t know. And there is a danger that, by jumping too quickly to too many conclusions, the reaction to the Bali bomb will cause yet more damage.
Of course, there are some similarities with the 11 September attacks on the USA. This was a terrorist attack, on blameless victims, causing substantial loss of life. But there are some striking differences. This was not an orchestrated attack by four aeroplanes on three key institutions, but one devastating car bomb outside a nightclub. It was not a strike at the heart of the Australian homeland, but an attack that took place in a turbulent region where Australians happen to holiday.
Above all, Australia is not America. The nation that calls itself ‘the lucky country’ might have shared with the USA a relative sense of peacetime security, with no history of the London Blitz or the IRA, but it does not share America’s economic stature, political clout or military might. What accounts for the way 11 September, and the reaction to it, came to dominate everything was that this was an attack on the world’s superpower. The Bali bomb was not.
The muddled reaction to 11 September caused a host of problems of its own: an incoherent ‘war on terrorism’ leading to a bloody mess in Afghanistan and a panicky stand-off over Iraq; self-defeating breast-beating within the West about ‘what we did to deserve it’; irrational sci-fi scares over anthrax and smallpox; the loss of liberty in the name of anti-terrorism.
Before using the reaction to America’s 9/11 as a model for how to respond to Bali’s 10/12, we should consider the flaws in the script.
Was bin Laden behind Bali?, by Brendan O’Neill
spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) ‘Lucky country’ in shock after its worst peacetime disaster, Guardian, 14 October 2002
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