My brother was at the JW Marriott Hotel at the exact time of the bombing on Friday. He was on the floor right above the lobby when the nightmare unfolded. He was not injured, and I was more relieved than I had ever been in my life. I could only imagine his shock, and then I thought about those who died in the explosions and I couldn’t even dare to imagine how their loved ones must have felt.
Nearly a dozen people died. Dozens were seriously injured. Hundreds of us were in total shock. Millions of us grew scared and enraged.
Yet as Indonesia grieves, this great nation has also been left confused over what to make of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s word in his first press conference after the twin bombings. Granted, the president carried himself very well through most of his speech. He condemned the bombings outright, sending a very clear message that there is no room to justify the abhorrent acts. He acknowledged the grief and suffering of the victims’ families, and only a few people would say that he was not personally and genuinely pained by the tragedy.
The president pledged a full-blown investigation, promising that the culprits would pay for the heinous crime and bear the full weight of the law. He rightly recognized the work of the law enforcers who had successfully prevented acts of terrorism many times in the past, yet pointed out that the bombings served as a reminder that there were still cracks in the security system that desperately needed to be fixed.
But there was a large part of SBY’s statement I wish he had not made. He dedicated significant time to insinuating that the bombings might have some connection to the unofficial result of the presidential election. He further implied that the act of terror might have been politically motivated and personally directed at him, and that there might be further actions in the future to prevent him from being inaugurated.
Did he really not expect Indonesians to be perplexed by his statement? Right after the bombing, we were already speculating on what had happened. Not knowing who exactly to point our fingers at, we blamed whoever was convenient for us. One would expect the president to defuse such speculation and conflict; he did exactly the opposite. Already, the virtual world is buzzing about tension between the president’s supporters, who are finding ways to justify his words, and his staunch detractors, who insist that SBY has proven Indonesians made the wrong choice in the election.
SBY’s decision to disclose intelligence data, including photographs showing people using his picture for target practice — an effort to support his theory about the suspects’ motive — is also difficult to understand. One wonders if he has compromised intelligence work by revealing such information, or just why there had been no action taken prior to the bombings if the intelligence was indeed valid. Personally, I would be surprised if there was a head of state in the world today whose picture is not used as target practice by some people somewhere.
Several of the president’s aides have tried to argue that all the president was trying to do was emphasize that the investigation should be carried out by taking into account all possibilities. If that was the case, the president could have simply said, “The truth of the matter is that we don’t yet know the real motive behind the bombings. At this point it is very dangerous for us to speculate, and I strongly urge all parties to refrain from doing so. We need to allow the investigation to take its course, for only until it is carried out in full will we begin to understand what really happened.”
That way, in careful fashion, SBY could have defused speculation, cautioned the public that the bombings may turn out to have some connection with the election — a point he seemed to really want to make — and could have even sent a warning that any attempt to provoke political unrest would most certainly be met with hostility by the already agitated public.
Yet these are testing times not only for the president, but also for the rest of the leadership, including those entrusted to be the de facto opposition to the government. The public will assess their response — both in words and actions — to SBY’s statements, and an outright condemnation of the president’s words may not necessarily strike the right chord with the public, the overwhelming majority of whom after all voted for him.
This is a pivotal moment for the political opposition as much as it is for the president and his administration. Democratic Indonesia will remember how leaders reacted to the crisis and will pass judgment at the ballot box. The grieving, frightened and enraged Indonesians will be drawn to those who offer solace, clear direction and a sense of safety.
During a difficult time like this, we turn to our leaders. We expect them to acknowledge our grief and fear, to assure us that they will do everything in their power to find out who is responsible for causing harm to our loved ones, to ensure no further conflict arises from the tragedy and to remind us that while we need to be vigilant, we should not engage in baseless speculation and blame each other.
We shall soon see whether our leaders can live up to our expectations.
Rivandra Royono is executive director of the Association for Critical Thinking and a consultant for the World Bank in Jakarta.