Australia's 'Sept. 11'

The Australian prime minister urges citizens to leave Indonesia following new threats.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Australians are beginning to feel the way Americans did after Sept. 11 last year.

Tucked away at the bottom of the globe, Australia has long considered itself insulated from many international problems. The island nation revels in its relaxed and friendly reputation.

But in the wake of Saturday's bombing in Bali that has left up to 200 Australians dead or missing, many of those preconceptions have been shattered.

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"This is a profound shift in how we see ourselves," said the Rev. Tim Costello, a prominent Baptist minister. "We are the enemy of some people in the world, and we're no longer just the good-time guys and girls."

The Bali explosions represent the worst attack on Australians since the Japanese air raids of Darwin during World War II, which left 243 dead. Prime Minister John Howard declared Sunday a national day of mourning. Blood banks are experiencing the biggest surge in donations in 25 years.

But just as citizens are seeking a role in the recovery effort, they are also asking some tough questions – for example, whether Australia's decision to support the Bush administration's threatened strike against Iraq might have prompted antagonism from Islamic fundamentalists in the region.

Letters to the editor have argued that the government's policy has made Australia vulnerable, and talk-radio has crackled with anger.

"You're getting comments like, 'John Howard should have kept his nose out of other people's business because things like this happen,' " says Matthew Mitchell, an analyst with the Melbourne monitoring agency Rehame.

The prime minister has rebuffed such claims, telling Parliament: "To those people who believe you can escape attacks of this kind by saying nothing when evil occurs, by doing nothing when evil occurs, not only is that moral bankruptcy, but it's also wrong. Retreat from the war against terrorism will not purchase immunity."

Thursday, Mr. Howard urged citizens to leave Indonesia due to "disturbing new information of generic threats to Australians and Australian interests," he told Parliament. He arrived in Bali late Thursday to hold a memorial service with friends and families of victims.

For the past 30 years, ever since hippies and surf enthusiasts discovered its pristine beaches and lush wilderness, Bali has been a playground for young Australians. The foreign-affairs department estimates that more than 20,000 nationals were in the province last weekend.

A vacation in Bali, just six hours by plane from Sydney, has become a rite of passage for many high school graduates and college students. For amateur and professional footballers, an end-of-season trip is a tradition.

Mr. Costello says that in this sports-obsessed nation, the number of young football players who were killed in the bombing symbolizes Australia's loss of innocence. "For our football stars to die, makes it more real for many, especially for young people," he says. "It really drives home that we're not immune to the world's strife."

Australians were the single biggest group to patronize the resort town of Kuta Beach where the bombings occurred. Nights at Kuta are often filled with drinking and promiscuity. Even if Australians were only caught in the crossfire, says James Lyon, author of the popular Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Bali, the terrorists – if they were Islamic fundamentalists opposed to Western liberalism – have made a point.

"The World Trade Center towers were a symbol of Western economic power," he says. "Kuta Beach is a fairly libertine place and, to them, represents not only Western cultural power but also moral decadence."

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