Friday, July 17, 2009

Why Us?: The Jakarta Hotel Bombings

I had some insomnia last night, and happened to be online at 4 AM. It's a good thing, because otherwise I might well have missed the news that two suicide bombings in Jakarta, Indonesia had targeted the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott hotels. At that hour, the death toll was listed as eight and rose to nine while I was reading, but now is being reported as six. By the time I woke up after finally falling back to sleep, the story was no longer the top one. Now, at 3:30 PM, it isn't even in the list of top stories at

This story raises two interesting questions. First, why did terrorists target these particular hotels? And second, why did we lose interest so quickly?

It seems obvious, but the goal of terrorism is to induce terror. The Broadway show Wicked has the wonderful line, "As terrifying as terror is . . . " The entire point is to make people afraid of what will come next, to make them look over their shoulders and alter their routine, and to ultimately make them decide that they would rather give in to some set of demands than continue to live in a constant state of fear.

In order for this to be successful, the terror has to be induced in those who are in a position to give in to the demands. There is no sense, for example, in making me scared in an attempt to get your mother in Cleveland to let you stay out past curfew, particularly if I don't know you or your mother. On the other hand, there may be some purpose in making me scared in an attempt to get me to let my own children stay out past curfew, or even to pressure my best friend into letting her kids stay out.

The answer as to why these hotels were targeted lies in the particular aims of the terrorists. Since no information is available as yet, at least in the mainstream media, about who is responsible, we can only surmise that either the perpetrators have a beef with western countries, most likely the United States (these were American-owned hotels where westerners stay) or believe that those countries are in a position to pressure others to do what they want. If their issue were more localized, we could expect they would be bombing marketplaces or other venues where Indonesians congregate. Clearly, the aim here was not to scare Indonesians. It was to scare us.

So why did we lose interest? Sometimes stories are pushed off the front page by more pressing stories, but today there is no single "big story" on major media websites. Quite frankly, we lost interest because we were not terrified enough, and we were not terrified enough because these bombings were not events we could personally identify with.

At 4 AM these bombings were big news because they were new and it was not clear they were over. Someone was trying to kill westerners and damage western property, and westerners, through their proxies in the media, were scared. But by 3:30 PM it was clear that while Americans had been wounded, none had been killed. No more explosions had occurred. And honestly, the vast majority of Americans feel absolutely no connection to Indonesia. Probably relatively few can even locate it on a map, and we have some vague idea that Indonesia is a place where bombings just happen. Our reaction would be vastly different if the exact same scale of attack occurred on U.S. soil. If the headlines at 4 AM could be translated as, "Someone is trying to kill us!," the coverage now boils down to, "They didn't kill us, and besides, it wasn't really us."

I'm sure that if you are in the habit of traveling to Indonesia, and certainly if you tend to stay at those hotels, this is still a big story. That's because, for that subset of the American population, the personal connection is much stronger. For the rest of us, we go back to judging what is likely vs. what is possible and decide that this really doesn't have much to do with us. For all our protestations that we care about all human life and suffering, we care about it a lot more when we can connect it to ourselves.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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