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Too Much To Risk

Andrew C. Thomas

After hearing of devastation in paradise, I wonder at how lucky I am. The bombings of nightclubs on the resort island of Bali have shocked the world from their senselessness. One living in this brave new world should be less surprised that such incidents could happen.

This summer I traveled to Bali as a leader of the Canadian delegation to the International Physics Olympiad, a competition for bright high school students from all over the world. The event serves not only as a test of knowledge and intelligence for roughly 300 young physicists, but as a place where scientists of all ages and backgrounds come to meet each other. The spirit of cooperation is astonishing. For example, there were several language barriers, but all were overcome with a community effort.

The competition was originally to be held at the technological institute of Bandung, a city east of Jakarta on the island of Java. But post-Sept. 11 fears caused the organizers to move the competition to Nusa Dua, a comparatively expensive tourist resort on the island of Bali. The venue change was aided and sponsored by the Indonesian government, knowing that a large international event would help the country’s profile as a global presence. Thus the competition was saved, and of previously participating countries, all but the U.S. team attended.

During the entirety of the trip, we were told how safe Bali was. This was largely due, as our tour guides explained, to the overwhelming proportion of Hindu-practicing residents of Bali, about 95 percent. The presence of the Hindu religion, they continued, meant that due to their belief in reincarnation, the people of the island were morally repelled from crime, because what goes around would eventually come around as karmic retribution. In other words, fear of conventional crime was extremely low, because incidence of such crime was also low.

Of course, I can think of no one who would call a terrorist bombing a conventional crime. But still over 180 people are dead and many more are injured. Preliminary investigations suggest that al Qaida is directly connected to the bombing, a fact that President Bush has trumped up in an effort to keep up support for the aging war on terror. As an international organization, it is free to move across borders and have its members frequently blend with the local population. There goes the karma theory.

But how could anyone not see this coming? Bali is a jewel in Indonesia’s financial crown. It represents an immense source of revenue for the country of over 200 million. In addition, it is the only major island in the archipelago that is not predominantly Muslim. Immediately this suggests it as a target by any Muslim radicals, which Indonesia is known to host. These two reasons alone make Bali an extremely inviting target for a terrorist attack against either Westerners or the moderate secular government.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is herself part Balinese, has been slow to address the operation of terrorist groups in Indonesia. News reports suggest this hesitation results from fear of insulting the large Muslim moderate. Logic suggests that she is short-sighted, interested in keeping Bali’s tourist industry thriving by limiting fears of any possible attacks. Openly acknowledging fear of terrorism in Bali would immediately lead to a downturn in tourism. In this way, Megawati has gambled and lost. The tourism loss in Bali is already being felt economically across Indonesia.

So the question remains: Why did this happen? The majority of tourists to Bali are Australian, not American. In fact, at first estimates only three Americans seem to have been involved, the bulk of the victims being Australian, British or German. One could suppose that residents of these countries would have less to fear from anti-American terrorist groups.

But the evidence suggests that in particular, the actions of al Qaida are not directed at Americans, but those who are simply “against them.” No one is spared, and Americans are certainly not being singled out. This battle is about a way of life, not nationality. Americans make a tempting label, but a dangerous one.

As a Canadian I shared in the arrogance of my fellow physicists in presuming that it was safe for me to travel to Bali, aside from food poisoning or the Balinese equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge. I was lucky that I didn’t pay for that attitude. If a group of angry, militant people want to create panic, an assembly of people from many countries, including students, makes a perfect target. My heart cries out for the victims and their families. It is my hope that the senseless deaths of these vacationers are the last for a long time, and that no more countries will play brinkmanship with their visitors’ lives.