Sun, 07 Mar 1999

Have we lost our sense of numbers?

BANDUNG (JP): My roommate has given up news. Well, I don't blame him. It's the time where getting the news actually is more confusing than not getting it.

The only interesting thing about the news today is the fact that most of the cases featured are never solved. There are too many stories featured so that keeping in touch with one is very difficult.

This country is really a news factory, in fact. If only Chris Carter, the creator and writer of The X-Files, ever came to live in Indonesia, he would have a lot of inspiration for the series ranging from unsolved manslaughter cases to "Are Riots in Indonesia Really the Work of Satan?" type of premises.

Ten years ago, the Dunia Dalam Berita news program seemed gripping and interesting for the conflicts it featured that happened in other countries, wars, famine, riots in some African country or other, all played like a very involved drama, while for domestic news, TVRI would feature some ministerial department meetings, or how to plow your field of rice right or what fertilizer to use.

But today, when all kinds of disasters in Indonesia are being broadcast in news programs, a news update every hour, printed in newspapers and magazines, and you realize all this is happening in this very country, suddenly you just feel nauseated. And suddenly, news programs become mind-numbing, too.

Especially when they show some bureaucrat saying something really stupid as they try to calm people, "Oh, the situation in the city is under control" while people are trying to kill each other in the street. Or as when the prosecutor in the Soeharto case says something like "so far we don't have any proof that Soeharto really is guilty in this case".

Well, excuse me, Mr. Prosecutor, the last time I checked it out, I learned that a prosecutor should say something attacking the defendant not soothing them.

Some news programs can also be retitled The Faces of Death for they show the actual corpses and even mutilation, body parts, still very bloody.

They picture a stillborn baby dumped in a sewer, or fire victims, in a distasteful manner. Hey, we got snuff TV here! I mean, people have right to know but, puhlease. (And you thought Hollywood was cruel for turning tragedies such as Titanic into huge summer entertainment.)

And I thought all this was the reason my roommate gave up news. "No, I just... I think I've lost my sense of numbers," he said to me sadly.

It all began six years ago when Eddy Tansil carried off a bank scam that cost this country 1.3 (some magazines then said 1.7) trillion rupiah and got away with it. Nobody tried to wake him (or us) up and said that it was an awful lot of money until somebody wrote in Tempo's letters column about how many kilometers you would have to park your vehicles in if you spent all the Eddy Tansil money on cars.

And now, that my roommate's monthly allowance (and mine) from his parents will only last for 15 days, he has become more transfixed by how numbers are playing games with his mind.

I have been shocked by the effect of what happens to me on him. Numbers are essential in news. Five students were killed by gunshots in May 1998. A few da ys later hundreds were roasted in the still controversial attempts at looting convenience stores and other buildings during riots.

One cameraman for one no-good gossip show attacked (he might as well deserve it) by Camelia Malik for invasion of privacy made quite a big deal while the fact that hundreds or maybe thousands were abused, disappeared, killed, during years of military operations in Aceh has never yet got the publicity it deserves.

Then in the same province, seven military personnel were killed and nine civilians were murdered in revenge.

How's that for equity. Two people got into a fight in Ambon with the result that the masses started to fight; thousands of people, many deaths, thousands losing their homes. How's that for equity. And much more, if you realize it, every day you are attacked by numbers.

But then I sensed some changes in my roommate's behavior. For instance, he rarely eats breakfast or dinner. Actually, he only eats when he's very hungry. His weight has dropped and he's not as cheerful as he used to be.

Then I notice some changes in our room, many little additions on the floor: small items crafted from bamboo and clay usually as souvenirs.

"Where did all this come from?" I asked him. "I bought it. You see all this pretty little stuff only cost me one thousand rupiah apiece. One breakfast itself costs three times as much." So he just gave up eating properly to buy stuff he doesn't even need. He's losing it. This is not right. There's something wrong about this scene.

But then I came to a conclusion. We're not losing our sense of numbers. But numbers have killed our sense! It is not about how to find equity on how many deaths should occur as revenge.

And it is not right to reduce the numbers of victims killed in riots as many military leaders do for the news. Are we supposed to be worried if the numbers of victims is one hundred and not if it's 50? This is wrong. One single human life is too precious to be sacrificed for anything. How can we lose our respect for life? Have we really gone that far? Have we decided to live with humanity erased from our senses?

Today time is at its strangest. People are losing direction. Many people now believe the end of the world is near. Well, if that's a fact, can we try not speed it up?

-- Jokoanwar Dekan