The ruins in Kuta, a small resort town on the Indonesian Island of Bali, have been sealed off from inspection. Australian tourists, bleeding, flesh torn by fragments and fire, are wandering about aimlessly. Most have returned home, but many still lie in the ruins, charred beyond recognition. The culprit is another bomb blast, most probably from an Islamic terrorist group – but this remains a question mark. An entire block of the lane that was Bali’s nightlife has been destroyed, with the beloved Sari nightclub disintegrated. Now, Balinese nightlife has been extinguished, and in its place, grief, suspicion, disbelief. The figures of the dead vary, and, as after September 11, the heartache of accumulating numbers has begun. Beyond mere numbers, the personal stories have also begun to pour in. The total number of dead is near 190. Of those, the Jakarta Post has reported the death if 72 Australians amongst them, while the Australian Advertiser (Oct 15) suggests the number may be as high as 110. There are thirty Britons, several Americans and numerous other nationalities amongst the dead. Then there are the Balinese.
Bali for Australians is what pre-Castro Havana was to Americans: an exotic escape, a dissolute, sultry retreat. Travelling to Bali is a “rite-of-passage” for Australians: sex, sun and sand in a tropical paradise. A letter writer argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that Bali should not be classed as an Australian “backyard”: but a backyard it is, a plaything for the Australian tourist. Australian footballers make their way to their flight from a hard fought season during the Southern winter. The distinguished Melbourne Football Club made Bali its end-of-season venue of celebration. Today, the Sturt Football Club mourns the loss of one its members. A day after the attack, another football player believed that his plane might incinerate before takeoff. Bali, a wounded plaything, has bitten back.
What is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the attacks is its political vacuity: it lacks the symbolic resonance of 9-11. There is only terror. There are no demands, there are no agents who claim responsibility. These are rebels who refuse to disclose their ideas – yet.
The Australian Prime Minister told Parliament on Monday (Oct 14) that, “The 12th of October 2002 will for the rest of Australian history be counted as a day where evil struck with indiscriminate and indescribable savagery.” Where were the symbols of capital or the military? If Indian author Arundhati Roy was correct to point out what was attacked on September 11 as symbols of a hegemonic power – the Pentagon, the Trade Towers – then this attack has no corresponding political meaning. Here was a nightclub. Western youth, and many Australians, many opposed to a war with Iraq and who do not necessarily agree with the broad scope of the war on terror, died. The terrorist has negated any moral capital he or she might have had. Perhaps Michael Ignatieff is right: these are “apocalyptic nihilists.”
This an Antipodean version of 9-11, without the scale, without the incessant twenty-four coverage overlayed with banners of “Terror”, or a “War Against Terror.” This was September 11, its incarnation, modest yes, but direct and vicious, in an Antipodean setting. Australians have remained calm and collected. Some are even staying on in Bali. Not being a superpower, it eschews the talk of military action and strategic realpolitik. Even on Sunday (October 13), a letter writer from Mosman would express his anger that news coverage was limited: “all we were served up ... was just another routine dollop of Sunday sport.” Australians continued to go about their recreational activities.
This grief, as a commentator on Australia’s Radio National network, is “austere and unembellished.” The language of commemorative terror is recycled in its grotesque forms: even a journalist reports on the ABC Television network as he is making his way through the fumes that he is at “ground-zero.” Is the term an appropriation of the Trade Tower’s sacral power? Perhaps not – and certainly not for many Australians. Bodies are charred as they were in the Trade Towers. At ground-zero, the bodies have incinerated and proven unidentifiable. Corey Gillian, an Australian Volunteer, told the Melbourne-based Herald Sun that unidentified bodies “will be thrown on a pile of rubbish.” Australians, like Americans post-9-11, seek a range of counselling services and emotional panaceas, a “communal grieving”. They want to see their loved ones; they do not want bodies buried without ceremony.
The inevitable question is offered: was this an attack on Australians? On the basis of pure arithmetic, the answer is yes. The Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia, Peter Carnley, has hinted in a service (October 19) that Australian sycophancy in its support for Washington may be have been rewarded with the blood of Australian civilians. Foreign minister Alexander Downer retorted a few hours later at a press conference that, if Carnley was in possession of any evidence showing such a basis, he should produce it immediately. Certainly, the prospect of “blowback” cannot be ruled out: prophetically, a former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin wrote in the Australian Financial Review (September 20) that Australia’s abrogation of a multilateral approaches in the South East Asian region had condemned it. Australia is after all the Pacific component of the U.S. war on terror. It also neighbours the biggest Islamic nation on earth, a nation that is divided, disorderly and haven to fundamentalism. Howard scoffs at the suggestion that the attack was premised on Australia’s involvement with Washington in the war on terror. “There are people who blame me because I am Prime Minister,” Howard explained on national radio. At the convened conference after the attack (October 13), he even cited French and British casualties to disprove the exclusive nature of the attack. The attack was on “westerners in general.” Many Australians are not convinced, and the robust debate is being carried on radio and newspaper letters. Blame is a commodity to be shared evenly.
The result of such an equitable distribution of blame is obvious: everyone is suspected in the war on terror. Its interconnectedness displaces the presumption of innocence. A letter writer to the Sydney Morning Herald refused to rule out Saddam Hussein (Oct 15) while another in the same column did not rule out American complicity in the attack. Others blame American hubris and Australian obsequiousness. Analysts suggest an Indonesian fundamentalist group. A particularly irate letter to the editor in the Sydney Morning Herald argued that we were living in a “post-multicultural world” which put the tribe before the universal value of human rights. We would do well to ignore the journalistic “puff” on a “peaceful Islam”. “Multiculturalism is dead. It is time to put our tribe first.” Pursuant to these sagacious words, mosques in Brisbane and Sydney have been attacked. The Indonesian fundamentalist group, Jemaah Islamiah, suggest that the attack was engineered by the CIA, while its leader Abu Bakar Bashir, has suggested that Downer might solve a few problems by becoming a Muslim himself. The debate is escalating.
The dilemma for Australian policy-makers is considerable. It is considerable for the Australian Left, which demands a solid critique of U.S. foreign policy while supporting a war on terror. The emphasis within the Labor party is one of seeking a consensus-based approach at the international level to the war on terror, not a unilateral strike on Iraq. But officially, Simon Crean, as leader of the opposition, prefers to have his feet in both camps: the unilateral and the bilateral. The war on terror is rendering Australia’s oldest party schizophrenic. It is rapidly losing ground to the more progressive Greens, which at this very moment challenge old Labor in historically safe electoral seats. The slogan of “war against Iraq” remains strong.
Howard’s line, with all its one-dimensional clarity, carefully retraces the language of President Bush: it is belligerent, and it is unilateral if need be. To not “criticize” terror is a “morally bankrupt” policy. The Australian ambassador to Washington, Michael Thawley, pre-programmed from Canberra with Howard’s words of wisdom, repeated the words to Margaret Warner on the Newshour program on America’s PBS. One should not “purchase moral immunity” through not condemning terrorism. It is also a “morally bankrupt position to take”: again, evil, with its clarity, permeates the terrorist discourse.
But the question, framed by Howard and the conservative Coalition government in Canberra, is not whether or not to endorse a position of quietude to terror. The bombings have been universally condemned. Salient questions on how to combat terrorism remain. Howard is always keen to emphasize the Australian role in the war on terror, and the familial tie with the United States. Terrorism is a seen as a lone creature, an arbitrary, insidious phenomenon. It is not reasoned as an outcome of foreign policy, nor is it reasoned as a revolutionary ideal. With this he has support, but not all Australians are so sure. Polls show a reserve in striking Iraq that was not evident when Howard attempted to prevent a refugee boat from coming into Australia in August 2001.
Australians have always fought wars in the distance, committed to conflicts in the abstract: the communist “contagion” in Vietnam, the threat to the British Empire posed by Imperial Germany. But modern terror is cellular and disparate. In the end, it may be a relief that Australia does not have the imperial stretch of American power to combat the invisible and pervasive phenomenon called terrorism. It is unable to resort to, as Norman Podhoretz advocated in Commentary, an “imperial”, colonial solution. Australia is limited to multilateral security arrangements: juggling a belligerent Washington and an Islamic Jakarta. It is only in the province of law and crime that Australia can combat the terrorist.
All the present messages from the capital indicate that the “law-solution” method of solving the terror problem will be used. Once listed as a terrorist organization, Jemaah Islamiah will have its assets frozen. The Indonesian Parliament has passed special emergency laws to combat terrorist groups. Bashir has been taken ill suddenly, but the wheels to try him are in motion. Beyond that, the collection of evidence is beginning and the FBI has agents on the scene. At home, the fear of civil libertarians is that Australian liberties will be further undermined. Australia still remains one of the most phone-tapped nations per capita on earth, and the prospects of having a carbon copy of the USA Patriot Act is never far away. Greens Senator Bob Brown has argued that secrecy and paranoia are indecent solutions, but his voice is being drowned out by the din of grief. More reasonably, relationship building in the South East Asian region has recommenced. Canberra will respond by developing the atrophied ties with Indonesia.
This will prove difficult, given the decay in Jakarta’s and Canberra’s relationship since the latter’s 1999 foray into East Timor. The Australian-led mission kept the peace but lost the relationship with Jakarta. Given Jakarta’s amenable disposition towards numerous Islamic fundamentalist groups in Indonesia, the cooperative nature of the relationship will be questionable. Added Jakarta’s perception that Howard won the November 2001 election on race issues (most of the recent refugee arrivals in Australia have been Arab or of Middle Eastern background), Howard seems to have burnt the bridges in any potential war on terror. Since his coming to power in 1996, the Southeast Asian region has diminished in importance. As readers may well know, his Arcadia is a free-trade agreement with the United States.
Arcadia is dead. Trade-talk is less important now than terror-talk. The U.S. will provide support in weapons and intelligence, but guns come before butter. There are only two certainties at the moment: the rising death toll on the tropical island, and the prospect of a war with Iraq. Even Robert Gottliebsen, a finance journalist who writes for the Australian Financial Review, is already predicting such an attack. For him, its time to belt up and watch those share-prices.