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Don't blame the backpacking victims

By Brendan O'Neill / January 6, 2003



LONDON

Looking back on the conflict- ridden year of 2002 and remembering the loss of innocent lives, the victims of the Bali bombings stand out. These young and carefree Westerners knew little of war until it was brought to their holiday destination.

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But some remember them differently. Since the Sari nightclub was blown to pieces on Oct. 12, a handful of commentators have been suggesting that the Australian, British, and American victims were not blameless. Apparently, they were arrogant and hedonistic backpackers, part of the "cultural imperialism" that is modern tourism - and so must bear some responsibility for the terrible events that befell them.

For example, in the current issue of The Ecologist, the must-read magazine for environmentalists in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, Guardian columnist Ros Coward describes Bali as a "clubbers' colony." According to Ms. Coward, this type of tourism is "a form of casual imperialism, that looks for warm places to party" where it's cheap.

Backpackers as "casual imperialists" who "colonize" third-world countries? When young travelers are described as such, it is only a short step to viewing them as legitimate terrorist targets. The reasoning that Western travelers need to adopt "more grace and more modesty" seems to imply that it was the Bali clubbers' shortcomings that got them killed.

In the Dec. 9 issue of the New Statesman magazine, environmental writer David Nicholson-Lord argues that the tourism typified in Bali "smells - of moral casuistry, of self-indulgence, even of that much-debated commodity, decadence." He concludes: "Given that there's good reason to regard tourists as the shock troops of development and post-colonialism, it's really not surprising, however awful the consequences, that they find themselves targeted by anti-Western militants."

There's that image again, of young tourists as imperialist "troops" invading foreign lands. After Bali, says Mr. Nicholson-Lord, tourists who "go on partying in the midst of it all" will have only themselves to blame if they get caught up in an attack. "Innocence may be blameless," he writes, "[but] ignorance, after Bali and Mombasa, looks all too culpable." He holds back from labeling the Bali victims themselves as culpable - but what else are we to conclude, when they are described as having been part of a Western assault on the third world?

Even in Australia, an unholy alliance has talked up the Bali victims' potential culpability. A far-left newspaper described Bali as being populated by "drunken, obnoxious, young(ish) Australians." One Anglican clergyman wrote: "[I]t must be said that there is much about the hedonistic, self-indulgent lifestyle of the average Aussie, exemplified in these and many other nightclubs, that is offensive to our God.... We must not overlook the fact that the judgement of God is over our nation for some of the very things that provoked this outrage."

This barely concealed contempt shared by the above commentators reflects an increasingly widespread view of tourism as an evil of the modern world. Tourism is now often described as a "degraded" and "decadent" pastime focused on consumption rather than respect for local environments, an activity that destroys local communities in the imperialistic pursuit of enjoyment. What happened to the perception that youthful backpacking is a positive way for young people to develop their independence and to broaden their horizons?

In academic texts in the United States and Europe, modern or mass tourism is often referred to as cultural imperialism, as displaying nostalgia for the colonized culture as it was "traditionally," and as a modern "form of enslavement" for local peoples and cultures who have no choice but to endure the onslaught. Such assessments overlook the benefit that tourist dollars often bring. And now such views are being applied to what happened in Bali and Mombasa (where tourists were targeted in November).

This all looks like a bad dose of Western self-loathing, where environmentalist commentators in the West are projecting their own prejudices onto the events in Bali.

Indeed, these Western writers risk giving the Bali bombers too much credence. There may have been a spate of arrests in the wake of the Bali bombings, but no group has claimed ultimate responsibility for the attack, much less have they articulated why they did it. The bombings had all the hallmarks of a blindly nihilistic assault, a murderous attempt to garner the world's attention by killing innocent Westerners. Yet now these writers are in danger of giving a measure of rationality to the bombings by claiming that they were a response to supposedly "imperialistic" tourism.

It was terrible enough that the Bali victims were cut down while traveling and enjoying themselves, without commentators spouting that there is something sinister about seeing the world with a backpack and a pair of dancing shoes.

Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of spiked-online.com.

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