Sun, 24 Nov 2002

Caught in a state of confusion amid all the speculation

This Ramadhan fasting month has been a time that this non-Muslim expatriate has had to learn to keep his emotions in check. Or try very hard at least.

It's not just about the surreptitious stashing of the coffee cup and pack of Cheetos behind the computer in deference to fasting colleagues, but studying how to bite your tongue when a comment about the current security situation gets a rise.

For me, a walking raw nerve, it's been a hard slog since the Bali bombing tragedy on Oct. 12.

When I first noticed the Metro TV ticker with the news of the bombings on that Sunday morning, my reaction was to rush into the bedroom to tell my Indonesian boyfriend.

"It must be those crazies targeting amoral places," he murmured through his sleep, perhaps not picking up on the irony of his words for our own situation.

In the ensuing days, amid the outpouring of grief and sympathy and concern, the speculation started to surface. A lot of it was defensive -- how come it had happened here ... Was it America (or Israel) behind it all, trying to sway the world to its cause? Or, bizarrely, could it have been some disgruntled bar-hopper who had not passed the discriminatory door policy and come back to act out her revenge?

The latter speculation was like something out of Austin Powers, but the former belief (and its prevalence) left me confused. Yes, even knowing about the CIA-engineered political assassinations of the 1950s and 1960s, and what happened in Yemen a couple of weeks ago, it was hard for me to comprehend that anyone could really believe the U.S. was behind the Bali tragedy.

There was more to come.

There was a TV interview with an artist who said that the Nunukan refugee crisis was actually a more "important" tragedy to the Indonesian people than the Bali incident, but that it took a few bule (white expatriates) to die for Indonesians to care about something.

There may be some truth to his words (why did the world go to bat for Bosnia, but took forever to act against the genocide happening in Rwanda?), and he is entitled to his opinion, but the final exchange, when the host extended condolences to families of the victims, then made a joke about the bombing, left me hollow.

Amid it all, I tried to develop my own little mantra -- calm, deep breaths, let it go -- whenever I came into a situation where there was the potential for a mini hissy fit.

On a recent trip to West Sumatra, before Bali but during the whole terrorist state hullabaloo, I was seated next to a man who I guessed was in his early 50s.

After the usual exchanges (it turned out he was a regent), he came out and asked me about the current hot topic.

"So, you don't think Indonesia is a terrorist country, do you?"

How to answer that one -- it's like one's overweight self asking someone if your bum looks big in your new jeans. They may be so tight that an angry red mark is forming across your gut, and the fabric is already starting to rub away between your pudgy thighs after one wear, but both of you know the requisite answer.

Dutifully, I mumbled something along the lines of "Oh, of course not", thus giving credence to the opinion of America the Arrogant.

But, ever so gradually, after Bali and with all that is going on in the world, I have come to another realization: Collective defensiveness is an equal-nationality afflicter.

As I watch "the station America trusts" giving its Star- Spangled take on the world -- that the American way is the only way -- I sit there with the same look of confusion that I have when I hear some of the opinions here.

The New York studio is a world away from us, with people with perfect faces and perfect teeth spouting opinions about places they probably could not find on a world map, but it's that same defensiveness that was captured in Cowboy Commander's "If you're not with us, you're against us" statement.

It's also reflected in the "we're all in this together" attitude of the callers, who phone in from the corners of the country to give their endorsement to taking out Saddam (Hussein) or dealing with Osama (bin Laden), which is what the channel chooses to call the man on the run.

But, I've heard a voice of reason. With yet another commentator in Indonesia going on about the fact that the country was submitting to outside pressures in the hunt for the perpetrators, a woman caller made a statement that mattered.

"Why can't we just be mature enough as a people to face facts instead of always being on the defensive?" she said. "If someone is in the wrong, it doesn't matter if they are from the same country, have the same religion, or whatever. Look how we used to bow and scrape to those smiling leaders who have turned out to be the biggest crooks imaginable, but we cannot deal with them rationally now we know how they really are.

"I'm really embarrassed by the way we behave."

They are words that all of us, whether we are Indonesians, Australians, or Americans, would do well to remember at this time.

-- Kevin Vickers