A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.
Written 13 October
On October 12, 2002, a small bomb exploded in a somewhat crowded nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali. People ran out of the club to escape, into the waiting blast radius of a second, larger car bomb parked outside the club across the street. The attack was the work of terrorists, the next big thing to follow the September 11th attacks in the US. And while 9/11 had been largely about showing Americans (and the Western world) that we weren’t safe in our own homeland, the 10/12 attacks* had been partly about showing Australians (and the Western world) that we weren’t safe on foreign soil either.** If we step up our homeland security high enough to deter terrorists, they would just find us in a popular tourist destination that wasn’t as secure. As long as we travel, they will find us. Bali, after all, is to Australians what Cancun is to Americans.
In my travels across Australia I’ve been asked about September 11th many times. Sometimes from other backpackers, sometimes from Australians. I’ve been asked by people fresh out of high school and I’ve been asked by people of my parents’ generation. And the questions largely fall into two categories. The first, and one that I may address in a later post, is my take on the whole thing. The second, and one that has come up more than I would expect, is a conversation about the gravity of the event and what it meant for the Western world.
The conversations usually spring up as a response to a statement about traveling as an American, or about going to a part of the world where someone didn’t feel particularly safe. But they come back to where I was when the towers fell.
I remember clearly where I was. Everyone usually says they remember clearly where they were when some major event happened. And studies have shown that they don’t. Big events are no more accurately reported a decade on in memory as small ones, though people are much more confident about their recall of the former. That caveat and disclaimer aside, I clearly remember I was in the shower having just pulled an all-nighter working on essays for my History of Japan class. One of my dorm-mates was in the commons room watching TV and she started incredulously cursing at whatever she was watching. Tired and cynical about her tendency to get worked up over insignificant stuff I scoffed and wrote it off. Dry and dressed I walked in to find out what she was going on about. Seeing the screen I quietly sat down and watched as people ran, camera footage jiggled, the second tower fell, and commentators proceeded to try to get a grip on the situation.
I vividly remember where I was when my country was attacked. When 2000+ people died in our biggest city. When my home city was attacked. When I couldn’t get through to my family to verify that they were alright. When I broke down in paranoid tears. I clearly remember when all of this happened to me and my country.
The thing that has continued to surprise me, each and every time this comes up, isn’t that I remember. I would be expected to. What surprises me is that it always evokes a response from the Australians I’m talking to, not about where they were when a big thing happened to Australia, but where they were when the towers fell. One person was driving through the night and heard it on the radio (time difference meant it was late night here when it happened). Another was woken up by her young child who couldn’t get cartoons on the tele because every channel just had “the plane going into the building.” These people, halfway around the world, have an eye out for us.
Is it because they are our allies, benevolent and interested in our affairs? Is it because they are world citizens, aware of things happening anywhere on the globe? Is it a result of only having 20 million people and thus needing news and events from outside sources to supplement their own? Is it an inferiority complex where they want to be some combination of British and American such that they coopt our pain and tragedies as partly their own? Are they reliant on America as the big kid on the playground whose vulnerability is indicative of the possible future harm that is to befall them?
It could be any of these in some combination or none of them. The “why,” while an interesting question, is one that would be pure speculation. The reasons stated are all ones that I think ring true for various Australians and for each person watching the events unfold in the US some of them, though not all of them, were likely at play.
But in the reverse we as Americans don’t hold up our end of the bargain. I am not by any stretch the most informed American. I have not been, at all times, informed of the major goings-on of the world. But I know that I am closer to that end of the spectrum than the oblivious, Idiot American end. And yet, here is where my brain stands. I recall there being a bombing in Spain sometime after 2001. I think in the London subway as well. And anthrax*** in the Tokyo subway in the 90s. And there was a bombing in Bali. But these are things I am vaguely confident – rather than certain – happened. These are things that were the lead story on the evening news for one or two days before dropping off the radar. They didn’t cover every channel. There was no 24-hour news feed. They were major events that spiked in the American public consciousness then just as quickly dropped off the radar again.
The bombings in Bali were the work or terrorists that targeted a major Westernized-society travel destination showing that there is no guarantee of safety abroad. That we were no closer to winning the war on terrorism. That the fight had shifted. And it made the news for a day or two in the States.
The Virginia Tech Massacre****left dead about a third of the Australian bodycount in Bali. It was the work of one mentally deranged individual and spoke to some degree about the state of gun control and mental health screenings in America. It was a horrific event, and one that happened on domestic soil, but it was leading the national news every evening for a couple weeks.
I don’t mean to diminish the sadness of any of these events. 9/11, Bali, and VT were all bad and had implications to larger issues. But the direction of information, the direction of sympathy and awareness, seems to largely flow one way: from the US to the world.
Perhaps it is indicative of that same egocentric mentality I’m noting that this, my entry on the 10th anniversary of the Bali bombings, is more about September 11th, and that my entry on an Australian/Indonesian tragedy focuses more on America.
* Or 12/10 as it would be written here.
** There were several given reasons for the attacks, and none of them really were stated as inducing fear of our safety in the world. But the end result is still the same.
*** Nope, it was sarin nerve gas.
**** Which they know about over here and have asked me about.