The Smiles of Sept. 11

Indonesian riot police officers prepare to confront hundreds of Indonesian Muslim students Sept. 26, 2001, during a protest outside the United States Embassy in Jakarta. (Photo: Edy Purnomo / Getty Images)

The dust and debris had yet to settle fully over lower Manhattan, more than 12,000 miles away, when I began to notice the smiles—and, even more distressingly, the laughter. It was Sept. 11, three days after I arrived at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta—the capital of the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Seven years ago today, my head was still spinning from a 22-hour flight and a genuine helplessness in the face of Jakarta's overwhelming pollution—a semi-lethal stew of suffocating vehicle fumes, toxic industrial waste, and nauseating raw sewage. I was watching a video at the home of an Indonesian friend, poring over the story ideas I planned to pursue as a newly arrived freelance journalist.

Then the phone rang. A passenger plane had just slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, said my host's father. I hung up and called to check on my sister, who lives in Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan.

We switched the television to an Indonesian channel that was relaying the news of that morning, in English with Bahasa subtitles. I was horrified and transfixed. A business executive stood next to a homeless man and described to a local television reporter how the man saved his life by pulling him from the burning wreckage. Both wept uncontrollably as the camera rolled.

But the next day there was nothing. Nothing. My host had neither cable nor satellite—much less CNN International or the BBC—thus we were reliant on Indonesian news channels. And all we got was silence: an impartial, stony silence—simply game shows, political news about Indonesia, and local celebrity gossip. That more than 3,000 Americans just lost their lives was somehow starkly irrelevant.

But other peculiar, and more distressing, things were on the horizon. They grew in volume, and my psyche, as those dark days progressed—as soon, that is, as Indonesians of all stripes discovered my nationality. "America—bomb—ha, ha, ha." The ubiquitous, infuriating words and mirth greeted me almost every time I opened the door of a taxi, made a purchase from a roadside vendor, or came across anyone else who knew—or wanted to know—my nationality. In Indonesia, this represents over 90 percent of the population.

The laughter continued, but then slowed. By October, it had subsided when United States-led attacks got underway in Afghanistan and anti-American protests, buffeted by the Indonesian government, erupted. Clashes between students, local Islamists and riot police brewed for days outside the sprawling United States Embassy, and elsewhere in Java—including fast food restaurants like McDonald's and Pizza Hut.

I will never, of course, find humor in Sept. 11. Since my return from Jakarta, however, I have grown to understand the feelings that briefly permeated the city of 15 million. A vast majority of Jakarta's residents, for one thing, live on $2 a day and, in 2002, were recognized by the Economist Intelligence Unit as residing in a place that had one of the worst qualities of life in the world.

But other things rendered 9/11 trivial to many Indonesians. They included basic, yet inconvenient truths about Indonesia's history—and its relationship with America. Beginning in 1965, by most estimates, at least 500,000 Indonesians were killed during the United States-backed anticommunist purge that led to the 32-year military reign of Suharto. None of this, or other abuses across the archipelago of 17,500 islands, say many, could have taken place without millions of dollars in military and other types of assistance from Washington.

Six months later, I was finishing an hour-long interview with Munir Said Thalib, the executive director of Kontras, an internationally recognized Indonesian nongovernmental organization that tracks disappearances of Indonesians at the hands of the security forces.

At the time, Thalib was revered as Indonesia's foremost human rights advocate when I asked what, in retrospect, seemed an obvious question: why were Indonesians so quick to tune out on Sept. 11?

The reactions of Indonesia's 212 million people to 9/11, he said, had since been vindicated by the Bush administration. "America could have sent a message that you wanted to make your own country a safer place and help the rest of the world—but you turned your back on us," he said, referring, in part, to a recent $50-million military aid package that—over a chorus of objections by international human rights organizations—the United States had given to the government of then-President Megawati Sukarnoputri—the first foreign leader to meet with President Bush after the attacks.

Hours after I left, a machete-wielding mob—most likely also in the pay of the government—descended on the Kontras office. They smashed computers and windows and, even worse, made off with computer discs containing valuable information on missing people and victims of atrocities by Indonesian security forces. One man sustained a serious beating and a concussion, while Munir managed to escape—with just minutes to spare.

But it was two years later, in 2004, and several months after I left Jakarta, that Indonesian intelligence agents caught up with Munir for one last time.

He was poisoned to death on a flight from Jakarta to the Netherlands.

Joseph Kirschke is a Washington, D.C., based journalist and a visiting fellow at the Fund for Peace, a nonprofit education and research organization.