The Bali Bombers, Mimesis and Me

I’ve been reading in recent weeks about the so-called Bali Bombers, three men — two brothers (commonly called Amrozi and Mukhlas) and an Imam/computer technician — who were tried and found to be instrumental in the killing of 202 people — most of whom were foreign nationals, including 88 Australians — — at nightclubs in a tourist area on the Indonesian island of Bali [in green] in 2002, to protest the US-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. (Bali is overwhelmingly Hindu, however.) Another 209 people were injured. (More at Wikipedia)

For their roles in the crime, their execution, which may occur by this weekend has now occured, will be by ritualised firing squad on another Indonesian island, off Java, the spot (or perhaps three separate spots) in the woods already decked out with chairs and crosses, after five years of legal appeals that apparently the bombers themselves had no interest in, as they have said throughout that they are ready and happy to die as martyrs, preferrably by beheading, in the Islamic way. They admit the crime and show no remorse but have apologised for killing Indonesian Muslims during the attacks.

Meanwhile, their family and other supporters are surging towards the moment of execution, burial, funerals, and partying, using the funeral as “an occasion ‘to celebrate the victory of Islam.'” Graves have already been dug for the two brothers. A goat will be slaughtered. It will be an occasion for rallying.

As usual, it’s the mimesis — the accusative gesture, the heightening drama, the religious rituals and the prohibitions, the sacrificial centre that offers meaning and a feeling of unanimity amidst grief — that interests me, and the predictable forms it takes, particularly as death comes very near:

The bombers are hailed by supporters as, variously, victorious martyrs, victims of an unfair system, and heroes whose deaths will spin off more heroes.

  • Family members have said it’s unfair for the Bali Bombers to be killed before the Bali Nine heroin smugglers, who “should be executed first because their drugs could have killed more people.”
  • The bombers issued a statement in October: “‘Principally we are ready to die but if the executions go ahead it is wrong. If we are executed there will be new Mukhlases, new Imam Samudras and new Amrozis and they will take revenge,’ they said.”
  • They have also written “an open letter encouraging their supporters to retaliate after they are executed,” naming some specific officials whom they believe should be killed.
  • The brother of two of the Bali bombers supports his brothers’ right to kill “half-naked people [the people in the nightclubs] … for the perceived insult. … ‘That’s what [my brothers] believe. Whatever it is, it is against Islam and must be fought, whatever the form, whatever the action.'” Their mother concurred: “‘I feel that killing infidels isn’t a mistake because they don’t pray.'”

The site of the execution has become rather sacred-seeming in the media, and both speech and acts related to the deaths are shot through with religious language and appeals.

  • Religion is obvious at the site(s): There are crosses there, religious officials have met with the men and will accompany the bombers to their place of execution (as will lawyers and a doctor).
  • There are rituals: the setting up of the execution site(s) in a particular way, the health check-ups for those who are about to die, families delivering a last meal of favoured goodies and other gifts. All the elements are in place, including autopsy table, helicopters and body carrier baskets, and the fourteen members of the execution squad, and a ‘rehearsal’ of the execution is planned for today.
  • There are mythologies and compelling stories galore, from everyone’s point of view, and they all say the same thing: we are victims and someone else is to blame for the violence. We are justified. There are rumours among supporters of the bombers that the U.S. CIA was behind the most destructive of the three bombs that exploded that October night. They see the attacks as “‘a conspiracy between America, Australia and the Jews.'” There are all kinds of theories concerning the nefarious meaning of the multiple delays in carrying out the executions.

The supporters are gearing up for a show of grief, celebration, and unanimity on behalf of religion and its martyrs.

  • Jemaah Islamiyah, a local network of “mostly Afghan trained militants” that is believed to be behind the Bali bombings, will be at the funerals in force and have threatened to kill in revenge for the executions. The founder of that group, Abu Bakar Bashir, plans to attend both funerals; he says thatMuslims would be angry if the men are executed but what he is most scared of is ‘if God is angry.’ ‘If Muslims are angry,’ he said, ‘it will be only words. But if God is, it will be real problem.'”
  • The U.S. and Australian embassies in Jakarta received bomb threats by text message earlier this week. Australia has raised its terror alert and launched travel warnings in anticipation of violence after the executions are made known.
  • Some Indonesians are donating their land for the bombers’ burial ground, to create a Jihadi cemetery; a blogger living in Jakarta notes: “‘It is almost comical in a sense the competition that is being generated with regards to signing up the families of the soon to be dead killers to a burial spot.'”

Not only are the supporters building momentum, so is the media. I set up a news alert for “Bali Bombers” last week. It brings about 20-25 news stories per day into my email box, more than any other news alert I’ve ever had. And nothing is happening — except the pre-death rituals, anticipation and intimations, and the post-death fears, anticipation and predictions — and the precise recording of the process of momentum-building as mimetic.

I admit to feeling fascinated, not by these three bombers and what they’ve done, in particular, nor by their deaths whenever they occur, but by the process as it unfolds so clearly, so ordinarily though it’s writ large, so (seemingly) unconsciously through all the conscious strategising.

To quote Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942): “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Three people, yes, and yet, how alike we seem, how much the same the system seems to operate everywhere: how ready to grieve, to unify, to remove conflictual elements, to blame and accuse someone else, to seek revenge, to feel we are victims, to ritualise, to sacralise, to mythologise, to invoke a higher authority to support our views, to want our side to win, to join in the violence and to feel good knowing we’re right.

Update 14 Nov: This article in The Age today hits most of the elements of the scapegoat mechanism: unification of splinter groups through shared anger, grief and a sense of being the victims of others — the outsider ‘others’ become the enemies, displacing animosity among  warring splinter groups; the compelling story that can be told to enroll new converts; the ‘sacrifice’ and the glorification of the ‘self-sacrificing’ victims; and, the understanding in modern times that violence in the name of religion masks “economic, political and social disaffection.”

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