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Over the last few weeks, in the lead up to the arrival of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “terrorism” was omnipresent in Indonesia.
Our morning began with news about gun-totting attackers, fatalities, police statements and journalistic investigative reports.
Before and after prayers, it became the subject of both informal talks and religious services in the mosques, with people trying to determine whether the acts of terror were real or engineered.
At the school where I work, the teachers and students also talked about it. In one of my sociology classes, compared to the rumors about Ronaldo’s unhappy life at Real Madrid, the subject of “terrorism” eventually won.
Yet, in a quizzical note, some male students were more interested in anything relating to the guns, i.e. the way the attacks happened, the types of guns used, how the targets were killed, and so on.
In short, “terrorism” is interesting because it resembles what these students watch and do in video games.
As what every video-game player knows, fighting and wars in their games yield only two things: glory or defeat, meaning life or death. What terrorism deals with is the same thing.
The terrorists kill for some perceived triumph and the counterterrorists do the same. All of them play on the same field.
Such games are only concerned with what side somebody is on and what cause he’s fighting for. There are no moral questions or considerations in war games.
Besides terrorism, another “hot” issue lately has been the ongoing drought, i.e. how farmers cannot plant or harvest their crops, and how in many parts of the country ordinary people are already consuming unhygienic water from mud holes.
Unfortunately, this issue is not something to be displayed before Clinton or any other special guest. In marketing terms, this issue is not “for sale”. It is only meant for internal consumption.
The same thing applies to my sociology students. Since there is nothing glorious or macho in the issue, few want to discuss it.
I guess, as members of the urban middle class, they have never experienced such extreme dry conditions and, hence, are not interested in it. It might need some time for them to learn the practical meaning of empathizing with those who are affected.
In fact, compared to the issue of terrorism, the drought is a more critical issue and one that can be dealt with. It is about what perspective the state uses and how to make solutions workable.
It is not one of the impossibilities illustrated by a Malay proverb, “Huge though the world is, I always miss when I hit it.”
Even if we use Machiavellianism as a starting point to have a comparative discussion of both issues, the virtu (not virtue) of the state’s functionaries or politicians to seriously address drought will give them an increased opportunity to, as Machiavelli said, “withstand the blows of Fortune, to attract the goddess’ favor, and to rise in consequence to the heights of princely fame, winning honor and glory for themselves and security for their government”.
Yet, we must forget the “extreme” version of Machiavellianism and focus on how “a prince” can exert his full control over the state and use it to maintain the state itself in the context of a modern state with democracy and liberty as its main pillars.
“Cruelty” against terrorists might offer significant punitive effects, not only upon the perpetrators involved but also upon their potential followers. “Mercy” might weaken the endeavor as a whole, allowing terrorism to remain.
However, if the ultimate aim of a ruler is to maintain a state and his or her personal gains, mercy is far more important.
While extending mercy toward terrorists might be a mistake, mercy for the majority — which makes up more than 99 percent of the population — is a must.
The current government must, therefore, learn from former president Soeharto. During the first half of his rule, which lasted from 1966 through 1999, he tamed, and caused the death of, thousands of people who could potentially have challenged his power.
He made sure that he was unchallenged and could dictate whatever he decided.
At the same time, however, and this is what must be learned, he had enough virtu (not virtue) to willingly do whatever was dictated by necessity, and not only against rioters. Along with his militaristic policies, he “approached” villagers or other ordinary people with extraordinary things.
He made himself popular in a constructive way, for example with the armed forces’ Masuk Desa civic programs, massive irrigation schemes for paddy fields, dissemination of positive news about what the government had done, and so on.
In this way, he was able to present his “majestically built government” and it was what most of people saw.
Even political pundits saw him as one of the most successful presidents in the world in maintaining order and at the same time implementing changes accompanied by staggering economic growth, before fraudulent oligarchy destroyed these achievements toward the end.
Alongside the problem of the drought — which threatens the quality of thousands of people’s lives in the years ahead, the impact of terrorism appears small.
The cases of drought, cholera, malaria and HIV/AIDS across the world constitute a far greater risk to people when compared to terrorism, says Charles Kurzman (2011).
So, doesn’t this mean that the drought should be the priority? For the government, being seen to act positively against the drought could bring more fame and glory its way, and inspire loyalty among the Indonesian people.
Given its alliance with the mass media, the broadcasting of “merciful” programs and gains would give the ruling administration more certainty than ever.
The writer is a researcher at the Paramadina University, Jakarta.