Paradise Lost and Lost and Lost . . .

As I said this morning to Charlie

There is far too much music in Bali

--Noel Coward

When the bombs went off in Bali on October 12, killing nearly 200 and obliterating two Kuta Beach nightclubs, two things strikingly did not happen. President Bush didn‘t so much as mutter the name ”Saddam Hussein,“ let alone blame him, and the American public displayed scant trace of the sympathy the world showed the victims of 911. We remained transfixed by ourselves.

This autumn’s version of anthrax, the D.C.-area sniper so dominated media consciousness that even liberal CNN could barely be bothered to show footage from Bali, perhaps fearing that viewers would switch channels to get more info-free speculations by so-called experts in serial killers. From watching our newscasts you‘d hardly know that, in Australia -- a sparsely populated country that had more than 90 citizens killed -- 1012 instantly became a touchstone in the national mythology to put alongside Gallipoli.

Although the Aussie media trotted out the usual guff about loss of innocence (tell that to the aborigines, mate), it recounted many touching stories of heroism, and didn’t fail to point out the self-centered feebleness of U.S. coverage: For instance, the online Miami Herald noted that two Americans died in the blast, then added simply, ”Most of the dead are foreigners.“ So much for the pain of our allies.

While the attack targeted tourists, its most enduring victim may have been the Balinese, whose predominantly Hindu population got smacked by a carom shot in the battles between Islamic militants, the Indonesian government and the West. The bombings instantly shattered Bali‘s idyllic image. On October 11, it seemed perfectly reasonable that the cover of the new National Geographic Traveler would blithely ask, ”Bali: Still Paradise?“ Twenty-four hours later, it read like the grimmest of wisecracks. Yet even before the bombing, one might have reasonably asked, Has Bali ever really been paradise? And if so, for whom?

The idea of a Balinese Eden first gained currency between the two world wars, when well-connected Western travelers -- including Walter Spies, journalist Hickman Powell and Andre Roosevelt (Teddy’s cousin) -- did what an earlier generation had once done for, or maybe to, Tahiti. Thrilled by its gentle, graceful, spiritual culture (and topless women!), they promoted the remote island as an alternative to the soul-sick bankruptcy of European civilization. Bali became a fad, and even a skeptic such as English writer Geoffrey Gorer dubbed it ”the nearest approach to Utopia that I am ever likely to see.“

This claim might have surprised the Balinese, who, though a culture-proud people, still labored under the weight of colonialism. Not only were they punishingly taxed by their Dutch masters until World War II, but they had never forgotten the notorious invasion of 1906 (described in Vicki Baum‘s novel A Tale From Bali), when a Dutch armed party was greeted by an astonishing gesture of passive resistance known as the puputan: The rajah of Badung and a thousand white-clad followers, bearing traditional weapons and accompanied by drums and gamelan music, marched from his palace toward the Dutch fusiliers. Before their startled eyes, the rajah had a priest stab him in the heart. Others followed his lead, and soon the Dutch soldiers began firing, an orgy of murder and suicide predictably followed by the invading soldiers stealing the valuables from the heaps of corpses.

Although Bali’s early champions naively saw only what they wished to see, many were also filled with a genuine, if often proprietary, reverence for the local culture; indeed, Roosevelt famously championed ”Bali for the Balinese.“ This idealism has largely been scuttled in the age of mass tourism, in which the notion of paradise has been bled of its social utopianism (see, for instance, Michel Houellebecq‘s creepily timed new novel Platform, which features another bombed resort) and transformed into a marketing concept. For most travelers, what makes Bali paradise is not the ritualized grandeur of Balinese tradition, but the fact that it’s an extraordinarily pleasurable refuge -- an exotic island with great beaches, mist-swaddled scenery, cheap accommodations, cool souvenirs, and locals who serve you with a graciousness you won‘t find back home.

Only a killjoy would scold travelers for enjoying such delights or fault the island for providing them; after all, international tourism has made the island prosperous by Indonesian standards. Yet just because Bali is a ”resort island“ (as some thoughtlessly have it), the locals should not be treated as extras in an attack on their own soil. And that’s largely what has happened in the American media. How many of us heard that the local victims of the blast were carried to medical facilities far inferior to those that took in the tourists? How many learned that the two flattened nightclubs, the Sari Club and Paddy‘s Irish Bar, let tourists in for free but turned away Indonesians unless they paid a special fee? (I first encountered this dirty little fact in Malaysia’s New Straits Times). Although the Los Angeles Times covered the events more skillfully than any other U.S. paper, displaying an admirable compassion for the suffering of the Balinese, I still had to read the foreign press to take the full measure of what the locals call durmangala, a very bad thing -- death, destruction, lost jobs, a crippled tourist industry (the island‘s major source of revenue) and the dreadful sense of being assailed by forces (and fanatics) beyond the control of the local Hindu population.

Of course, the desire to escape from real-world problems is what drives travelers to faraway lands in the first place, and it’s one symptom of our impoverished idea of utopia that paradise keeps getting farther and farther away from anything resembling a real society. Over the last few years, Bali has seen a boom in $600-a-night resorts located miles from the beaches frequented by budget tourists (you know, the kind of people who got blown up), protected from intruders by armed guards and wholly self-contained. Everything is there for you already: natural splendor, fine dining, aromatic spas, private swimming pools, exquisite traditional architecture and the sense of timeless tranquillity that is a favored illusion of millennial tourism. Except for the smiling servants, cooks, masseuses and cleaners, all trained to international standards, these modern havens offer you Bali -- sorry, Roosevelt -- without the inconvenience of the Balinese.

It has always been the dream of the suburbs that they, too, could be a kind of heaven on earth -- a bastion of middle-class comfort in which people felt free to attend their kids‘ soccer games, shop at Home Depot, pump cheap gas into their SUVs and eat without fear at the local Ponderosa. While this fantasy has been shaken in recent years -- by, among other things, the Columbine shootings and the spate of child kidnappings -- nothing has assaulted it so directly as the ongoing saga of the ”Sniper on the Loose“ (to use a network tag line). Suddenly, simply buying crafts at Michael’s seems as perilous as defusing land mines.

The result has been a kind of top-down hysteria, less visible among ordinary people -- my friends in D.C. are going about their lives, albeit a bit nervously -- than among those in the public eye. As government officials close down schools and issue statements of various levels of opacity (I‘m looking forward to the TV movie about Montgomery County’s deliciously monikered Police Chief Moose), Washington-area journalists are spinning in a delirious vortex of killings, lying informants, Tarot cards, retired FBI profilers, weird communiques between cops and suspect(s), and highly publicized arrests followed by still more shootings. Although the media have obviously become fixated -- the Washington press corps has even lost interest in talking about the election -- you can understand the obsession. The sniper saga isn‘t just a classic news story, it’s far more compelling than any collapsed mineshaft. After all, that only happens to miners, but any one of us could be out there at the gas pump. Why, these bastards might even shoot somebody holding a microphone. It‘s one thing to cover this kind of random violence in crazy-ass places like Bosnia, Congo or Indonesia, but these are the suburbs for crying out loud.

We are living, of course, in an era of meta-journalistic self-involvement, so when the media weren’t beating the sniper story to death, they were busy beating to death the story of how the media were beating the sniper story to death. Enough already. The other night on Larry King, CBS‘s pawky Bob Schieffer grew enraged at charges that he and his colleagues were treating the manhunt as a kind of game. ”I don’t know any reporter around here that thinks we‘re covering the Orange Bowl,“ he fumed. The poor man was so rattled that he forgot to call it the FedEx Orange Bowl.

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >