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by Jennie S. Bev, Santa Clara

This year, we are commemorating 15 years since the May 1998 tragedy in Indonesia and 12 years since the 9/11 tragedy in New York. These two incidents marked important milestones in many people’s lives. The former woke me up from innocence and the latter shifted my view that no place was a utopia, not even the US, the land of second chances. 

 Both tragedies reminded us of how fragile human beings are. As individuals, as groups, and as members of imagined communities, human beings are never completely disconnected from each other. A singular act of kindness or evil can create ripple effects that travel through time and space. 

Think of ourselves as tiny moving dots. One move can create a small movement of other tiny dots. And those dots number 7 billion in total. How powerful. Any bump among these dots can create an explosion. More bumps, more explosions. 

I witnessed the May 1998 riots in Jakarta, where houses and buildings were burned to the ground, belongings were looted, and women were gang-raped. 

There were too many casualties to mention, for one raped woman, one death, or one robbery was already one too many. And I must deal with the trauma and “survivor’s guilt” for as long as I live.

There are several “theories” on what triggered that tragedy, who masterminded it, and why it occurred. Too many questions have gone unanswered. Too many tears were shed. Too many families have lost their loved ones and hard-earned wealth. No closure has been reached because the alleged perpetrators have not been justly punished.

For what? For satisfying a few heartless and greedy politicians? 

Sure, we can easily blame the failure of Indonesia’s nation building and the Asian financial crisis in 1997, which uncovered a substandard banking system and monetary policies and served to create financial crisis in many families. 

Others blame Indonesia’s exclusive pluralism and hidden segregation among ethnicities and religious followers, which enraged the poor and the marginalized when they could no longer afford to live.

A concoction of those elements created a lethal, combustible combination that was the May 1998 tragedy.

Three years and four months later, on Sept. 11th, another tragedy occurred 10 thousand miles away from Jakarta. I visited the World Trade Center in New York that summer and looked on in disbelief when the TV aired clips of two passenger airplanes plunging into the twin towers. 

 Both incidents taught me several things. First, no place is perfect. A place can be both utopian and dystopian within a blink of an eye. Second, human beings are connected at various levels. We are attached through an invisible string that encircles us and makes us the human race. 

Third, corrupt power tends to use violence in sustaining existing power and acquiring more power, as Weberians would attest. 

Fourth, the pain, the trauma, and the shift of consciousness resulted from witnessing and experiencing first hand a humanitarian tragedy lasts a lifetime. 

Today, with so many violent incidents in the world, such as the mass shooting of 20 elementary students in Newton last December, the Boston Marathon bombings, killing three innocent people and injuring 175 others, and the rape of a 5-year-old child in India recently, I have come to realize that the risks involved in living in modern world have multiplied considerably. Things can change in an instant. Returning to the state of equilibrium is probably an obsolete concept, for volatility is the “new normal”.

Religions and ideologies have been used to justify disturbed individuals for using violence to achieving their goals. 

Some violent incidents do not even have any religious or ideological justification. Sometimes, a violent incident merely results from failures: society’s failure in helping an individual or an individual’s failure in conforming to the majority.

Modern society is amazingly complex. An act could be small and overlooked, yet it has the potential to trigger cruel, subsequent acts. And we sometimes contribute to the intertwining web of human complexities, either directly or indirectly.

May victims and survivors of the May 1998 tragedy be blessed with peace, fairness and justice, soon.[]

The Jakarta Post, May 14, 2013

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