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Jolt to Australia's Sense of Immunity

October 18, 2002|Gerard Wright | Gerard Wright, an Australian freelance journalist, lives in Denver.

A ripple crosses a small sea faster than a mighty ocean.

This ripple was in fact a shock wave. Its epicenter last weekend was Bali. It traveled instantaneously across the Timor Sea, and in Australia it felt as though it touched everything in its path.

There may be at least 119 Australians among the 200 or more fatalities of the bombing of the Sari bar and nightclub. They were honeymooners, jilted brides, mothers, fathers, children, surfers, footballers and travelers. In a country as lightly populated as Australia -- with 19 million people it is only a little larger than Greater Los Angeles -- their situations were familiar, even if their names were not.

There is the daughter of Dawn, a friend and neighbor of my parents, who suffered second-degree burns to 80% of her body.

There were the eight women from Victoria, friends who would all turn 40 this year. They decided to mark the occasion in Bali. Three were killed. Another is missing.

Bali is to Australians what Cabo San Lucas is to many Californians: a tropical haven, close enough and cheap enough to be accessible, just foreign enough to be exotic, just similar enough to be comfortable.

On the eastern side of the archipelago that is Indonesia, Bali was "discovered," as it were, by Australian surfers in the late 1960s. The rest of the population gradually followed. Within 15 years, a holiday there had become such a middle-class travel cliche that the Australian rock group Redgum would derisively sing, "Been there done that / I've been to Bali too."

For the sports of rugby and Australian football, the October end-of-season trip is both rite of passage and minor bacchanal. In Bali last weekend, Australian football was represented by the great--including Jason McCartney of the North Melbourne Club--and not so great--including the Kingsley Football Club, an amateur team from Perth.

McCartney, who was in a bar across the road from the Sari, has burns over half of his body and a shrapnel wound in his back. The Kingsley club may have lost seven players. Corey Paltridge, 21, the only one whose body has been positively identified, was playing air guitar on the dance floor to a song made popular by the Australian band AC/DC when the second and larger bomb exploded.

The Coogee Beach Dolphins from Sydney lost five players. The Platypii of Forbes in western New South Wales left three teammates on the island.

Sunday will be a day of national mourning. That is not something Australians have had much practice at in our 214 years of national history.

Though we contribute willingly to the security of other countries, only once before, in World War II, has our own sense of immunity from attack been compromised.

The day of mourning will include a nationwide minute of silence at midday. Prime Minister John Howard suggested that Australians wear a sprig of wattle, a golden native blossom, as "a single unifying tribute" to the fallen.

But the Australian spring has been unseasonably warm, and the wattles have mostly come and gone. The bloom is off that flower too.

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