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Remembering the “Bali Bomb” and the War on Terror

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Remembering victims at the Bali Bomb Memorial in Kuta

Today is the tenth anniversary of the Bali terrorist attacks. I wasn’t here on October 12, 2002. Still, I wanted to somehow honor the terrible event that happened in the town that I live.

Two hundred two people died that night. Many many more were injured, scarred for life with burns resulting from the bombs. Australians, who make up a majority of partygoers here in Bali, had the most deaths of any nationality. Many many Indonesians died, 38 officially.  Many believe this number to be much higher as records in Indonesia may miss people who simply disappeared or went home to their village to die.

In the end, nationality doesn’t matter. Over 200 parents lost their children on that day, including the mother who lost two of her daughters, including the final Australian to die from the attack, 56 days later in a hospital of burn related injuries. Three people were executed for the attacks, representing the final three to die. (Note, I’m not a fan of the death penalty)

According to statistics, the Bali Bombings were the second most deadly terrorist attack since 9/11. There have been roughly 10 terrorist attacks since 2001 having about 200 deaths. (Want a fun read, check out this one, “List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll“).

I also want to reflect on what ten or eleven years of a “global war on terror” has meant to me.  I’ve spent over five of those years traveling abroad.

I live in Bali half the year, and not a day passes when The Bomb isn’t somehow mentioned. It’s ubiquitous. The monument, built on top of the destroyed Paddy’s club, is known locally as “Bomb Bali.” (actually they pronounce it more like “boum bali”) Just hop in a taxi and say, “Bomb Bali,” and you’ll end up right in front of it.

The most popular clubs in Bali are still in the same area, right next to the Bomb Monument. You see them every time you go out. It’s on the main road that snakes you into the tiny back alleys of Kuta. I must pass the Monument almost daily.

The offering I took to the Bali Bomb Monument

Today I got a Balinese offering and walked from where I live, to the Bomb Monument. It’s 1.4km from my apartment, which is less than a mile. The walk takes me down Legian Street, which is packed to the brim with vendors offering taxi rides, t-shirts, foot massages, and tours. Usually it’s an assault on your sanity. Usually I drive my motorbike to avoid them!

It’s 1.4km from my house (blue dot) to the location of the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali (red dot)

Today was different. Everyone saw my offering. Most knew where I was going. They’re naturally curious and friendly folks and some asked where I was going. I didn’t have to say. I just pointed down the street. They knew. They knew where I was going. Living in the shadow of the Memorial, they don’t even see it anymore. Don’t think about it. Can’t think about. It’s there but it’s not really noticed. They say people who live under a dam are the ones least afraid of it bursting. Or course they are, they have to be.

I finally got to the Monument. Covered in flowers. Signs. Offerings. I lit the incense and placed them on the altar, under the names of everyone who died that night. Someone had brought a few cans of Kirin, a Japanese beer, and put it next to their offering. I don’t think you can buy that beer here. Someone brought it from Japan.

An offering at the Bali Bomb Memorial, with Japanese Beer

I  had earlier read today’s news coverage of the event, mostly in the Australian papers. The Herald Sun has an entire special section on it, it’s worth a read. Relatives of the victims have come to Bali to pay their respects. I’m sure that can of Kirin was for someone who died that night, from one of their next-of-kin. I can see my father leaving a Guinness on a memorial for me. So I went to the store and bought a Guinness can, opened it, and left it along with my offering.

I don’t know why we do silly things like leave offerings, or worry about the dead. I suppose it’s for us. The living. We need time to reflect on life. On society. We have to ask questions like: “How can this happen?” “How can people that were raised by a mother and a father do such terrible things?” “Why can’t we fix this?”

I wasn’t in the US for 9/11. I was on a bus to Poland. No one knew what was going on. We were stuck at the border for 18 hours because it was closed, and no one knew why. It was almost three days later when I went to the Hyatt hotel in Warsaw and watched CNN for the first time. It didn’t seem real. I went to the US Embassy in Warsaw and saw the thousands of candles people had brought, to show sympathy to us for what happened in New York. Four days after 9/11 I went to Auschwitz. I saw a killing machine there. Twenty thousand people were killed there. Every day. For years.

My offering at the Memorial, including a little Guinness.

Terror keeps striking, and I’ve managed to avoid it, but it’s hit places I’ve been.

  • I was in Kenya in 2001 and in Mombasa 2002. Mombasa was attacked in 2002.
  • I was in Dahab, Egypt in 2001 and 2002. It’s an amazingly chill backpacker haunt of seaside restaurants and great scuba diving. Bombed in 2006.
  • My favorite market in Cairo, Khan al Kalili, bombed in 2005.
  • Madrid and London subways were bombed. I’ve been on those subways.
  • India. I’m sure I was at the tourist-favorite Leopold Cafe that was bombed in 2008.
  • Kampala is one of my favorite towns, home of the world famous Mattress Man. Bombed during the World Cup in 2010, probably the same restaurant I was at with my friend. If I was in Kampala that week, I might well have been watching the game there.
  • Marrakesh was bombed last year and I didn’t even know about it. I was certainly in this rooftop restaurant looking over one of the world’s great public squares. The resto is packed with foreigners looking for amazing photos.
  • And of course Bali.

What does it mean? I suspect I have a different view on terror than most. Looks like I’ve been lucky enough to avoid terror. In most of the above examples (Bali the one exception), I was in those places before the terrorist attacks.

Is that luck?

Some would argue I’m stupid for being anywhere near them in the first places. Most of the bombing has happened in countries with a Muslim minority: India, Kenya, the United States. Again, the Bali bombing an exception. Indonesia is a 80% Muslim, but the island of Bali is mostly Hindu. There’s been plenty of bombing in Egypt, which is surely a Muslim country. Lets also exclude Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which might as well be considered war zones. At least half the terrorism in the world is now in those countries.  Blame the Americans? Blame the Muslims? Blame the ease of making a bomb and killing people? To me, that’s the real thing: it’s not tough to kill 10-20 people. Ask the lone-gunman idiot who shot up the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. He killed 12.

Muslims aren’t the problem. I know so many Muslims. They’re great people. People of faith. People who believe in peace and wish nothing but the best for everyone in the world. I have nothing but great things to say about the Muslims I know.

As for terrorism, what do we do? We can’t stay at home and worry. Your chances of dying in a terrorist attack are ridiculously low. Maybe 200-300 people a year have died from terror attacks in the past 5 years. Most attacks now number 10-20 in deaths. We can’t stop people from killing 10-20 people, it’s almost impossible.

Do you fly? Airplane deaths number about 800 yearly. Are you four times more scared of flying than terrorism? I bet not.

I think my perspective comes from visiting Auschwitz a few days after 9/11. They killed over four million people in the Holocaust. Terrorism in the past ten years? Probably not even 5000. I don’t mean to belittle the threat of terrorism.

Actually I do.

You know how many people died in car accidents in the US last year? There are approximately 40,000 car deaths yearly. With an average of 500 terrorist deaths over the past 11 years, driving kills 100 times more people yearly. Don’t drive!

So ten years on from the Bali bomb, and eleven years on from 9/11, what is the lesson?

Many of the local and Australian news articles talk about how this tenth anniversary will be the biggest and last memorial organized by Bali. Everyone is ready to move on.

I’ve been around more death this year than I care to remember. One thing I notice is that death carries a stench, and everyone wants to avoid it. It’s there, but no one talks about it. People get as far away from death as they can.

I felt this as I walked to the Monument today. One Indonesian said, “God Bless You.” Wow, God Bless him! I am sure most respected me for taking an offering to the Monument to Remember. They didn’t say anything though.

Most though, want to pretend it didn’t happen. They just ignore it.

The President of Indonesia didn’t even bother to attend the Memorial. Australia’s biggest politicans were there, of course. This was their 9/11.

The biggest terrorist attack in the history of Indonesia and the President didn’t attend the Memorial?

Indonesia seems ready to move on. My friends living here, they seem sick of talking about it too. None of them seem to care much. Surely I am the only one to leave an offering.

People are uncomfortable with death. Death is for the dead. Living is for the living. My friends say we should avoid the clubs near the Monument for the next few days.  Why? Fear! Perhaps not fear. Perhaps it’s smart. Surely the terrorists want to strike again, and we know they like anniversaries. The recent attack on the Libyan US Embassy was on 9/11.

Yes Mom (who might be the only person to read this far), I’ll take my chances and skip the clubs too. I’ll admit it, it’s fear.

The terrorist won yet again.

Lastly, lets talk about terrorism itself.

The whole point of terrorism is to scare. I believe our response to 9/11 should have been to yawn. It didn’t really scare me. The whole point of freedom is that things like this can happen. The 9/11 terrorists actually played by the rules with airport security, etc. We fixed the rules, and I don’t think we’ll see a 9/11 again.

In the end the terrorists won. They got what they wanted, complete and utter fear and terror. The entire United States of America was on our knees trembling. To feel better we had to go attack two countries. That didn’t go so well either. So much for swagger. So much for being the “Lone Superpower,” or whatever other bravado we had back in early 2001.

This effects you. Next time you’re at the airport, you’ll need to empty everything out of your pockets, take off your belt, and go into a machine. You will raise your arms up into a position that those watching “Cops” will know quite well.

“Hands up! You’re under arrest! No, sorry, we just want to see you naked!”

“Hands up, this is the police!”

This machine will scan you and send a picture of your naked body to someone somewhere who is looking for anything suspicious. Nevermind that metal detectors work just fine.

Of course we need to fight terrorism.

I’d just like to see us be more reasonable about it. We can’t eliminate terrorism. We allow 40,000 deaths on American roads in the name of “transportation” freedom. We could stop those deaths by not allowing anyone to drive. So why are we so afraid of 200 deaths a year from terrorism? The cost of the “war on terror” is now higher than the Second World War. I don’t mean to belittle the people that died fighting for our freedom, but 2000 people died on September 11. At a cost of $5 trillion, I can’t even do the math on the cost per life lost.

What is the value of a life? We don’t like to think that way. It’s a great question though. We could design a car that could survive every crash. The car would be so expensive that no one could afford it. So of course we all make allowances. The National Transportation Safety Administration assigns a value to each life saved as around $5 million. So if they can make something safer, but it costs less than $5 million per life saved, they do it. That seems to be a fair assessment of what we think is reasonable to save a life. We’re all worth about $5 million. Take your wages of $100,000 per year and multiple times your life of working 30 years, and that’s right around $3 million. At 30% tax rate, that’s $1 million for the government! :)

Anyway back to the $5 trillion number of the cost of the war on terror. Assuming the War on Terror prevented another 9/11 of 2000 deaths, that means each life saved was worth $2.5 billion. That is almost 1000 times more than what we assume for transportation. The $5 trillion is also just the amount spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It doesn’t include all the domestic spending on new “tools” and the time wasted by Americans in lines at the airport. $5 trillion? $10 trillion? $50 trillion? Whatever. At the end of the day people got scared and getting scared cost us a lot of money.

It’s now ten years on from what we may later call the “Glory Years” of terrorism.

I hope we can we can put it all behind us and move onto a rational discussion of the trade-offs between freedom and safety.

 

 

 

 
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