The terror experience
A Sydney writer finds that the Bali bomb has caused a perverse patriotic excitement.
Twenty-four hour, all-channel coverage of burnt out buildings and missing bodies. The leader of the nation condemning the cowardly acts of evil and vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice. A weird sense of excitement hanging over the fireball spectacle of the patriotic tragedy of a lifetime.
USA, September 2001, right?
It’s Australia, October 2002, in the wake of the Bali bombing.
I don’t mean to be flippant about what happened. On Friday 11 October, my little sister changed her holiday plans at the last minute and is currently sunning herself on Stradbroke Island, Queensland, and not Bali, where she had originally planned to go. She’s about to turn 22, and she’s with her girlfriends, out for a good time. No doubt she would have been partying on the night of Saturday 12 October, and so in all likelihood she’d now be dead or maimed.
Before we reflect on the wider cultural meanings of the terrorist attacks, let’s stop for a moment and remember the reality of the bombs. Traces of the highly powerful C4 explosive, used by the Indonesian military, have been found at the site, which has been seen as evidence that the attack was the work of a highly organised, heavily funded group (1).
On the night of Tuesday 15 October, the Australian death toll stands at 30. Almost 200 are still missing, presumed dead. That’s a horrible death toll. The horror of the event and its crushing human toll is huge.
But the reaction of the Australian media and government – especially prime minister John Howard – is little short of bizarre.
What do we make of the Australian media leaping to a frenzy of wraparound special coverages proclaiming this as ‘Australia’s 9/11′, and flashing up photos of the dead, the bereaved, and believed suspects (all Muslim extremists, all trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan)?
What do we make of John Howard morphing into President George W Bush, and the endless titillated references on Australian TV to the ‘half-hour long’ phone calls Howard has received from the Oval office? Take away the carnage, and you’d think Madonna was on the phone.
There’s a palpable excitement in the air – a sense that, like on 11 September, history is being made and you are the lucky witness. Because the Bali bomb happened so close to Australia, and killed so many Australians, you’re more than witnessing it – as an Australian, you are a part of it.
On the online edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, one of the country’s prestigious broadsheet newspapers, Margo Kingston wrote:
‘This is a time for our writers and artists to describe our grief and help us feel the pain together. I’d like to publish your poems and visualisations.’ (2) (My italics)
Uh, okay, Margo, I’ll send in a painting, and we’ll all feel the pain together.
That’s nothing, though, compared to Howard’s address to parliament, televised live across the nation yesterday (My italics again):
‘For the rest of Australian history 12 October, 2002, will be counted as a day on which evil struck… young innocent Australians engaging in a period of relaxation and whose innocence was palpable… determination to do all we can to bring to justice those who are responsible for this crime… the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam.
‘We fight terrorism because we love freedom; because we share the values of other countries that are in the war against terrorism; and because it’s evil and you do not seek to reach an accommodation with those who would destroy your sons and daughters and take away the security and the stability of this country. I hope I speak for all Australians in expressing the fierce determination to do everything I, and we, can do to bring to justice those who have done such evil things to our people.’
If I was one of Bush’s speechwriters, I’d be faxing Howard the customary message of sympathy for the dead – and an invoice for royalties.
America has its 11 September – now Australia has its 12 October. And who said Australia was unsophisticated and behind the times? Silly old British and Europeans – what blow-up date have they got?
But can I ask just what are the leaders going to do to ‘bring to justice’ the terrorists? Indonesia is notoriously violent and politically unstable. In 1999 and 2000, Australian troops were sent to supervise the handover of sovereignty to violence-racked East Timor – while riots and attacks have been the order of the day in the Indonesian capital Jakarta for years.
Yet the Australian air is full of ‘al-Qaeda’ and ‘Osama bin Laden’. No doubt tomorrow’s headlines will be about Iraq, and connections between the Bali bombing and those Afghan caves. Do people really, honestly, believe that an evil mastermind is holding court in a secret base somewhere, who is the sole instigator of ‘evil acts’? For crying out loud, isn’t that the plot of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me?
But no, the Indonesian Islamic extremist group Jemaah Islamiah apparently has no independent causes – it’s but an arm of dastardly old al-Qaeda. Accordingly, Howard announced in parliament on 14 October that ‘We will be moving…as a government to have Jemaah Islamiah listed as a terrorist organisation in the UN as soon as possible. We have received indications from other countries, including at least one (of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) that (the move) will be supported’.
I wonder which country? Anyone who, like me, was unpopular and nerdy at high school, can well relate to this Australian government/UN strategy. You stole my lunch, I’m going straight to headmistress, and she’s going to be upset with you.
It’s easy to mock – who knows how to respond to terrorism post-11 September? Every bomb, every plane crash carries with it the spectre of the gaping mouth of the terrifying unknown. So perhaps it’s little surprise that the Australian media and government have, as Jennie Bristow wrote on spiked, fallen back on the only precedent available, and revisited the 11 September script with absolutely no alteration (see Australia’s 10/12).
The similarities are uncanny, from the endless direct references to 11 September, right down to Prime Minister Howard’s hastily arranged press conference/address to the nation on 13 October, where he described the attacks as ‘cowardly and despicable’, and seemed to be in a hurry on his way to some urgent, top-level response meeting.
I’m a patriot, but also a realist, and I know that Australia has no real political or military top-level anything. Journalists have repeatedly mentioned Howard’s correspondence with President Bush, and the tearful US media coverage of the event that has hit at the very heart of Australia.
Strange then, that when I surf through the American internet media, it’s all about the Washington sniper. What news there is about Bali refers mainly to Indonesia (‘a country north of Australia’) and President Bush’s increased conviction to continue with the war against terrorism. (Thank God, the war’s obviously working so well, and an invasion of Iraq will sort out those Indonesian zealots for sure.)
But switch on to Australian network news, and we get snippets of the Bush press conference, where he confirms verbally that he has, in fact ‘phoned Prime Minister Howard’ and extended his sympathies to the ‘good nation’ of Australia. The Nine Network (Australia’s most popular commercial network) featured a segment in its hour-long news special on how the event was being covered overseas.
Now, I’ve lived in Australia most of my life, and I know that my isolated island nation, cut off from the world, loves nothing more than to know that it is being mentioned and remembered in ‘the world’. Perhaps there’s only a shade of difference between the national fervour at seeing Lleyton Hewitt win Wimbledon, and the Bali victims winning us some precious northern hemisphere airtime.
Whether it is horrific tragedy, Oscar success or sporting prowess, the Australian media, and the Australian people that the media serves, can’t resist something that assures them they aren’t left abandoned over here at the ends of the Earth.
So how does that explain the likeminded reaction of some of the British media? After all, at present, more Britons have been confirmed dead as a result of the Bali bombing than have Australians.
Since 11 September, terrorism seems to have become the new millennium’s stadium event from hell, visiting nations in turn, allowing them to experience the perverse excitement and communal bonding that takes place after. The media love it, and governments know each bomb tips them closer to winning whatever public support they need to invade Iraq, or smokescreen dodgy legislation behind an impenetrable doom-and-gloom rhetoric.
Watch out Britain, the terrorist roadshow may be coming soon to an unpredictable innocent location near you. It’s big, it’s bad, it’s horrible, but you just won’t be able to take your eyes off it!
Mark Adnum is a Sydney-based writer.
Australia’s 10/12, by Jennie Bristow
Was bin Laden behind Bali?, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Explosive ‘could have come from Indon military’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 2002
(2) Searching for hope, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 2002
(3) PM wants JI added to UN terror list, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 2002
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