Rio Helmi – May 3, 2011

As the flagwavers outside the White House cheered the triumph of the “free world” over evil, they resembled nothing so much as adrenalin-fueled Roman crowds roaring jubilantly at the sight of the spilled blood of a gladiator. How far have we come since Rome? Or more to the point, how far have we come since 9/11?

In the pivotal week after that massive tragedy, ill-advised decisions were made that were to plunge the whole world into a seemingly unending escalation of vile terrorism and draconian security. In the days that immediately followed the attack, sympathy and support for the United States came pouring into the White House from the world over, including many predominantly Muslim countries. It was an opportunity to create a united front, to share resources in an intelligent, long term and effective effort to undermine any support for fundamentalism as a whole across the East/West, North/South, and intra-Abramic religious divides.

Instead George W. Bush, prompted and prodded by his advisors, opted for a “crusade”-like war on the sources of terror in Afghanistan. Though the “crusade” epithet was quickly dropped, the damage was done. The neo-con association with the Christian right, the USA’s on-going blanket support for Israel’s aggressive intrusions into the West Bank and the Gaza, has reinforced a massive line of confrontation between the “West” and an ever-more radicalized, neo-pan-Islamic movement.

In simple terms the result has only been escalation, there has been no “triumph of the free world”. Rather the contrary: as commentator Neil Macdonald points out, many underpinnings of American democracy went out the window: habeas corpus was swept under the carpet, torture sanctioned, Guantanamo became infamous. Even the name of the outrageously undemocratic Patriot Act was symbolic of this loss “free world” reason. On the other side of the fence, radicalization became an everyday occurrence.

With the election of Obama there was hope, light at the end of the tunnel some said. His speech at Al Azhar university in Cairo was deemed historic, though many Arab commentators at the time adopted a “wait and see” stance. Whether this was simply cynicism or an awareness of the immense pressure an American president experiences in office, there does seem to be some indication that they were partially right.

Obama remains likeable as a figure, and for us Indonesians there is something of an emotional investment in his attempt to change the world order, but right now the odds for his success in bringing about change don’t look so good. Whether out of personal conviction or under incredible pressure, Obama’s bid for change is perceived to have been seriously compromised. Obama has pledged to pull the US out of Iraq, but he continues to try and win a military victory in Afghanistan. There is little to indicate that this will succeed, nor will it do much to bring about peace, so it begs the question why a man as intelligent as Obama would take this route which so clearly will lead into a quagmire? Is it political expediency? We expected better from Barrack Obama.

Whatever the case, the impression the world gets is that Obama has let himself be swayed by hawkish elements, and there are poltical gains to be made. It is clear is that this mission to take out Osama was, from the word go, a mission to kill, not to detain. The speed and the manner in which his body was dispatched at sea smacks of conspiracy and insult, and is arousing anger amongst Muslims the world over. Indonesia will not be an exception.

What happened to the ideals spoken of in Cairo? Osama committed heinous crimes, but is an eye for an eye really the way forward? In a macabre scene again reminiscent of Roman emperors at the arena, Obama followed the whole mission live from A-Z, right up to the moment when a bullet entered Bin Laden’s left eye. When Obama made his speech he emphatically and repeatedly used the word “I” regarding the authorization of the mission. It is clear that Mr President is now fully endorsing military solutions to a problem which he once talked of as one of misperceptions between cultures and creeds.

How this brutal and bloody “success” is supposed to bring peace is a mystery. Even the CIA is predicting more violence, and the rhetoric from the Arab world supports this. Those who stood outside the white house and cheered are surely fools. Americans the world over will be reviled anew, senseless violence will continue to escalate. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “An eye for an eye will make the world blind”.


  1. Kate

    You have made some very good points. The manner in which a country or president chooses to react to has consequences. The actions can serve the purpose of political gains for the president and/or what is perceived to be power gains for the country. Whatever the case may be, the gains appear to be orchestrated.

    • Rio Helmi

      Kate, those gains come at a very high cost. When international charters such as the UN Charter, the Geneva Convention etc are flagrantly ignored by what is supposed to be the leading exponent of the free world/democracy then the consequences are very signficant.


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