Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Quakes, Cones and Curls: In the Ring of Fire

21 Poppers In A Party Pack

One thing you can never say about life in Indonesia, is that it is routine. Just when you start to enjoy quiet routine, up crops an earthquake, tidal wave or volcano just to keep you on your toes.

If you are watching the world media, you probably think Indonesia is ablaze with corpses littering the streets. Hardly the case. The reason for the hype is twofold, I suspect. One is government greed and the other is the use of natural or man-made events to maintain a climate of fear.

The first one is quite obvious. Indonesian government, like all governments, is a corrupt cesspool of graft and greed. The difference here being that it is thinly veiled and even admitted in casual conversation. No one operates under the illusion that government does anything but take for personal gain. This is in contrast to someplace like America, where the corruption is far deeper and subversive, but there is a carefully crafted veneer of honesty and 'transparency,' which is obviously beginning to dissolve.

In Indonesia, it is an open secret that police take bribes, politicians and bureaucrats freely suggest and accept large cash 'incentives' for anything from drivers' licenses to national regulatory policy.

It is into this environment that a large earthquake, tsunami and volcano are thrown, and well, what's a politician to do? Hype it to the rafters and then wait for the avalanche of aid cash to fill their pockets. The Jakarta Post carries a front-page headline today (Monday), "Foreign aid welcome for reconstruction." Curiously, I can't find a link to the story online, but my first reaction is, "Of course it is!"

By contrast, the Man on the Street (MOS) has taken little notice. In the wake of Mount Merapi's first eruption, that killed on the order of 100 people, it was barely a topic of discussion here in Jakarta. In some cases, there was even a somewhat gleeful attitude exhibited by one person in Jogjakarrta (about 12 kilometers downwind of Merapi), as she described the excitement there. By the third and fourth explosions, and with heavy ash falling on Jogjakarta, the tone finally turned towards concern, but still the MOS here hardly raised an eyebrow. At least so far.

One thing that DID trigger some amount of panic was a report on Saturday afternoon, on MetroTV and TVOne, that a warning had been issued for Kerakatau, about 60 kilometers west of Jakarta. That got some people's attention and set off some mild stocking up activities, such as buying canned good and extra water. However, as far as I can tell, those reports have been unsubstantiated by any 'official' release.

Even less noticed by the MOS in Jakarta was the quake and tsunami in the Mentawi islands. These are remote islands on the western frontier that, if pressed, some Indonesians might know exist. By comparison, a tidal wave in the Aleutian islands of Alaska that kills a handful of polar bears would generate more interest in the average New Yorker. Furthermore, the death counts have obviously been exaggerated, as recent reports note that more than 100 folks have been found alive in the affected area. As with all media and government information, though, one should never let a few facts stand in the way of a sensational story, especially when a potential tsunami of aid money is involved.

The Merapi situation is really a man-made disaster. The mountain is the most active 'natural' volcano in Indonesia, with regular eruptions as recently as the 1990s. A notable exception is the 'mud volcano' in north Java caused four years ago by oil drilling. The cause of death at Merapi is two-fold: government hype and plain old hard-headedness.

For years, the Indonesian government geology office has been breathlessly issuing warnings of imminent eruption at Merapi, causing hundreds if not thousands to flee, only to witness a harmless puff of steam as a result. Consequently, when the 'offical' warning went out last weekend, most folks on the mountain did what most Indonesians do with government here: ignored it. It was a combination of the 'boy who cried wolf' syndrome and prevailing culture. One notable exception was the man charged with guarding and communicating with the mountain spirits. Like the captain of a ship, he went down with the first blast.

Additionally, the minute the boom stopped echoing, hundreds of folks ran back up the mountain to check crops and animals, only to get hit with a second, third, fourth, and now fifth blast. The image is almost comical, were it not deadly. Local TV, being somewhat less circumspect about the images they broadcast, were replete with video of ash- and mud-covered bodies being stacked like cord wood. Hardly a deterrent to the affected farmers.

The situation is analogous to the imaged from New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. There, a large group of people chose to live on a river delta, below sea-level, in a hurricane infested area that has been flooded repeatedly throughout recorded history. Then, when events unfold as one would rationally expect, they stood with hat in hand at the money trough to be made whole for their own folly.

When I moved here, I was fully cognizant of the fact that my choice put me inside a ring of (admittedly dormant) volcanoes in one of the most earthquake-active zones on Earth, in a city frequently hit by flooding. I have taken the necessary steps to prepare and to investigate areas of the city least prone to flooding, thus reducing the greatest number of variables possible. However, if I lose everything to a major shake, you will not find me with my snout in the public trough. I freely chose this location, fully aware of the risks.

Similarly, if you live below sea-level in a storm area, you will get hit. If you live on an island in an earthquake zone, tsunamis are a real threat. If you farm the slopes of active volcanoes, prepare for pyroclastic blasts and ash clouds. Why is that such a difficult concept?

Finally, governments throughout history have used fear as a means of control. The more fearful a population is, the more likely they are to turn to Uncle Gummint to coddle and protect them, even though the security is completely illusional, and in most cases the fear is generated by the self-same organizations to stampede the cattle to the velvet corrals. Hyping natural disasters, 'terrorist' bombs and asteroid impacts serves the greater purpose of destabilizing people so that they surrender their rational and normal instinct to protect themselves, in favor of surrendering their lives to a control structure, which fosters victimhood and illusory safety in excchange for fealty.

In conclusion, I think it's safe to say that the global headlines of death and destruction serve a more nefarious purpose of generating liquid assets and irrational fear, than is warranted by the extant situation. Furthermore, the people in the affected areas have, at some level, made conscious choices to live with the risks, just as I have. Disasters, such as tidal waves and volcanoes, touch a primal nerve in most people, and so make for good copy that sells papers and draws viewers. In relation to how folks are reacting locally, the 72-point banner headlines worldwide are nothing short of sensationalism and hyperbole. I am convinced that there is a cadre of paper-pushers salivating at the prospects of bags of aid money.

In short, people who live in glass houses should not be surprised to get cut once in a while. To expect anything less is to deny reality.

And so life goes on...

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