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Reflections on the Bali Bombing

Darryl Passmore, March 2003

The bomb attack in Bali's Kuta Beach in October was a terrible, terrible tragedy. A crime of enormous appallingness - both in scale and in its targeting of largely young people who were motivated by nothing more than enjoying themselves.

And it has shocked Australians in a way that few events in our country's history have done.

But why should it come as such a shock? We know that the world is all too often an extremely violent place. Daily news reports show us clearly the gross atrocities that human beings are capable of unleashing on each other in ideological pursuit of religious, cultural or economic domination or retribution.

And yet despite-or perhaps because-of these constant reminders, we are able to distance ourselves from the suffering of fellow human beings. Our way of life is becoming increasingly globalised. Technology gives us the means to see more of, understand more about and-via tele-communications and the internet-talk more with people around the world than ever before.

We buy from, and sell to, countries in every corner of the Earth. And we are able to travel around this blue planet with an ease unimaginable even to our grandparents. And yet we are still able to mentally and emotionally disconnect ourselves from so much of what takes place in the world-to see events through a vision of ‘Here' and ‘There', of ‘Us' and ‘Them'. We've been able to see wars and terrorist attacks as things that happen in ‘those' places to ‘them'; to accept that such events are a simply part of life in places such as the Middle East and parts of Africa and give silent thanks that we don't live there.

September 11 shook us not only because of the huge number of victims, not only because many of us saw it happening live on TV, not only because those killed, injured or traumatised for life were civilians simply going about their normal working days. It shook us because this time, these were people like us. They looked like us, their way of life was similar to ours. They lived in cities similar to ours.

Many Australians had been there, Many Australians were among the victims, survivors and witnesses. We reacted with shock and fear. We were told the world would never be the same. Our political leaders-and many ordinary Australians-voiced the sentiment that America's grief was our grief. Despite the way 9/11 consumed our minds, hearts and airwaves-to a much greater degree even than the Bali bombing has-we still held onto some slender sense of immunity. It was still happening over there'-not so far ‘over there' certainly, but still ‘over there'.

But where was the rationale for that sense of immunity? The governments of Australia and the United States are leaning heavily towards there being al-Qaeda involvement in the Kuta outrage.

If that proves so, then it should come as no surprise logically. In the wake of September 11, it was unquestionable that Australia would express our empathy and offer our support for the US. That could have taken many forms including medical aid and practical help in rebuilding the centre of New York.

We chose to offer military support. And as soon as we signed up as an enthusiastic ally in America's War on Terrorism, we became the enemy to those groups who had targeted the US. And because this had already been clearly defined as a war not between armies but by terrorist cells upon civilians, in committing Australia the Howard government had legitimised Australian civilians as targets in the eyes of those groups.

We were told repeatedly and strongly that this would be a war without geographic boundaries so again, while the targeting of Bali-a tourist location so famously popular with Aussies so close to the world's largest Muslim population-should sicken and outrage us, should it really shock us?

Today the nation will mourn the scores of young Aussies killed at Kuta-sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mates cut down in the prime of their lives. We will grieve their loss as people and the waste of their potential. We will pray for the lives of those critically hurt and for the speedy recovery of the other injured. And we will feel the pain of the parents and families of those who died.

And if we really feel it-truly share that pain-we will pledge to do all we can to ensure no other family endures it-not those who look and live the way we do nor those who don't. If we respond to what happened at Kuta Beach with anger and aggression, we will ensure that many more mothers experience that pain-more Australian mothers, Iraqi mothers and goodness knows who else.

Until we can recognize that the suffering of a mother in Baghdad or Brooklyn or Beirut or Bali is as great as that of a mother in Brisbane, we cannot protect ourselves. Mr Howard said this week that terrorism was too clinical a word to use for the Bali attack. It was a brutal and barbaric act of mass murder. He is right. And that is how it should be treated: As a crime.

All effort and all resources need to be marshalled to investigating the attack, hunting down the suspects, bringing them to trial and punishing those found responsible. It should not be used as a basis to waste more lives. There was another lesson we told ourselves we would learn from Sept 11. That we would appreciate the fragility of life, that we would take the time and make the effort to appreciate what was important and to show those around us that we care.

How quickly those feelings, so strong in the weeks after the devastation and carnage in New York, began to dissipate. How soon it was that we fell back into old patterns where chasing a buck resumed its place as top priority in so many of our lives.

How soon the latest footy results became more important than the wellbeing of the old lady living alone on our street. The dreadful events at Kuta Beach have given us another cruel reminder that death can strike at any time. It's given us another opportunity, another reason to re-examine and re-set our priorities in life. Will we take it this time?

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