The Possible Toxicity of Seriousness following Recent Attack in Jakarta

There has been a looming question, perhaps a rattling moral concern, seen in how Jakartans react to the explosions and shootings that took place in the metropolitan’s busiest arteries on Thursday, 14 January 2016.

Why aren’t we dealing with terrorism seriously enough?


Immediately after the attack, social media was awash with humor: pictures of people flocking near the bombed Starbucks, taking pictures, akin to the reaction seen around the shooting of a blockbuster film; pictures of street hawkers selling mango, satay, and peanuts to the crowd; netizens going gaga for handsome and fashionable policemen. A number of comedians launched situational jokes about the attack.

Why aren’t we dealing with terrorism seriously enough?

Isn’t the lighthearted reaction from people who could’ve easily been any of the seven dead victims or the injured ones baffling?



Let’s suppose a “serious” reaction is imperative and we must conjure them. What options do we have?

1. Grief

In the morning after the attack, my office is closed due to security concerns, so I decided to go to Bandung to be with my family. On the way to the bus stop to Bandung, I chatted with my motorbike taxi driver. I asked him about yesterday’s attack, his opinions on whether stability has returned, about why people were so nonchalant.

He said this gem which I will never forget: “People are afraid every single day: of not being able to make ends meet and feed the family. People are sad every single day: of not having enough and seeing rich people flaunt, of hardships on the street. If we choose to be sad or afraid, we will be debilitated. Can’t afford that.”

We have to remember that grief is a debilitating and overencompassing emotion. We aren’t able to operate normally and exert sound judgment when we are in fear or grief. Grief is often a luxury enjoyed by the luckier ones instead of an enabler for most people who are struggling. Meanwhile, humor and lightheartedness are exactly through which people find ways to not only survive their days, but to truly enjoy them. That’s why when many foreigners visit Indonesia, they are surprised at how much laughter people have despite a general lack of access to goods or property.

If grief is an option, Indonesians would succumb to mental breakdown seeing the disabled homeless sleeping on bridges, seeing families sleep next to railways, seeing poverty. Grief is not affordable.

More so, terrorists want to debilitate the people. The moment grief overtakes us, they are successful in their attack. Although grief is the supposed and expected natural aftermath of such attacks, Jakarta’s resilience is definitely remarkable.

A dominion of fear and grief often leads to anger. These feelings should not be invalidated: falling victim into terrorism is a tragedy. But, what does this anger lead to?

2. Hawkish Policing

Immediately following 9/11, the Bush administration launched a number of harsh and ultra-hawkish internal security policies. Pernicious laws were put in place. These included ethnic profiling, waiving of the innocent-before-proven-guilty law enforcement principle, and others. They unfortunately worsened the situation: many Muslims and Arabs were mistreated greatly, and the remnants of such policies were still felt many years after the terror attacks.

At the UN, the UNSC created several emergency resolutions without proper assessment in the name of appeasing an angry crowd, and all these have created long lasting discriminatory practices.

The most ironic part? Many homegrown terrorists were actually spawned by these too-hawkish policies, whose reactionary genesis is solely attributed to the necessity of a “serious reaction”.

In the 70s, Juhayman al-Otaybi rebelled against the Saudi kingdom, demanding ultraviolent and harshly uncompromising Islamic tenets called Wahhabism to be implemented. His rebellion was quashed, him guillotined. The government was shaken by the audacity of the rebellion, as many deaths fell and blood was spilled in the holy grounds of Masjidil Haram, where supposedly no blood between muslims shall ever be spilled. Shaken, the government concluded a (in paranoia, I would say) that a “stronger government” is needed. So the ultimate irony unfolded: the very government that quashed the Wahhabist revolution, become the Wahhabis themselves.

The government does the terrorist’s job for them.

Shortly after Jakarta attack last Thursday, some say that several local politicians have been heard to promise hawkish “terrorist crackdowns” to an unnerved crowd asking for clarity regarding the situation. For hot pockets of radicalization such as Depok, Lamongan, or Solo among others, a less-than-tactful and poorly-thought-out policing will be music for these extremists’ ears: exactly the ammunition they use for recruitment, to vilify the government, to paint a narrative of war that now the government is enemy of the religion, etc.

If the Indonesian government does this, we fall into the same trap as the House of Saud: we blow buoyant winds under the eager, deathly wings of extremists’ recruitment.

While proper policing is extremely important to restore stability and ensure security, it is very important for government, military, intelligence agencies, police force, and all involved to be able to do their job properly without having to follow hawkish policies demanded by a terrorized, angry society.

3. Attack

Another option of serious action might by a full-blown attack through physical military participation in international war. This was Hollande’s reaction towards the Paris attack. This was more or less Bush’s reaction towards 9/11. This can be very dangerous because it is even easier this way for recruiters of extremism to call for fighters by pointing out that the state is now an official enemy.

Another irony is state perpetration of bloodshed through collateral damage. It is ironic that Bush, Cheney, and Rice became terrorists themselves against citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, all in the name of retaliation. This necessity to show strength through guns is toxic machismo. As a moral society, we have to be very cautious not to be the aggressor ourselves.


What is serious about Thursday’s attack in Jakarta was the victims. In no way whatsoever their plight is to be taken lightly or without the full respect, empathy, and prayers they deserve. The country should convey wishes of speedy, full recovery for surviving victims as well as for the family left behind. What happened to them was a tragedy.

That said, we have to be very careful about how far that seriousness extrapolates. Necessitating a “serious reaction” beyond our empathy often leads to worse aftermaths and dangerous precedences for the long run. We should not be blind to the recent history of global radicalization. Let’s not repeat mistakes of the past.

The power of humor and lightheartedness should not be taken lightly. It should not be belittled as just a fleeting “coping mechanism”, alluding to a quality somewhat akin to denial based not necessarily in realism. It allows many to survive, flourish, and feel okay through such a difficult time. It epitomizes a resilient soul of the collective. Most importantly, it cuts off extremists’ access to narratives of power (for their victory is gauged by the magnitude of our fear and grievance) and rhetorics for recruitment. These reasons are why I am very moved, humbled, and inspired by how Jakartans react to Thursday’s bombing. The hope is for this level-headedness to continue consistently as we go forward combating those extremist assholes.


PS. These views are solely my own and does not in any way represent any institutions I affiliate with or be perceived as affiliating towards.


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