The men who planned and carried out the bombings in Bali in 2002, the ones that killed one of my oldest and dearest friends (but only after he suffered with burns over most of his body for nearly two weeks) along with 201 other people, were executed last month.

You’d think I’d be happy about that.

Let me tell you a little story that may not seem to have much to do with this, but does, somehow, in a way that’s not entirely clear to me. Maybe in the telling, I can work it out a bit.

It was the mid-70s, I think, another glorious short clean summer in Northern BC, one of the ones that stay with me in my memory, and my aunt, uncle and two cousins were visiting us.

We had taken our river boat ten or fifteen kilometers up the lake, up to one of the rocky beaches under the ridge of Mount Pope, inshore from Battleship Island. We set up our outpost on a long expanse of thumb-size pebbles rattling under a broad unclouded vault of sky, stands of jackpine and spruce at our backs clustered beardlike around yellow stone cliff outcroppings. Clear deep dark green water, hot dogs cooked on whittled birch sticks over a fire pit. It was the kind of day that makes you feel glad to be alive, especially when you’re 8 or 10 years old and all is right with the world.

I remember at one point my cousins and I were ranging up the shingly beach, just exploring, when we came across the biggest snake I’d ever seen. It was glistening and black and in the water, and it took off like a shot as soon as it saw us, undulating frantically as it headed along the rocky verge, trying to escape.

We were curious, or at least I was, and we started throwing driftwood and rocks in its path, trying to get it to turn around, or slow down, so we could get a better look. I’m not sure, of course, what my cousins were thinking, but I don’t think they had any more malicious intent than I did. We were curious. The missiles we hurled at the poor beast got progressively larger and we got more excited, and the inevitable happened. One of the rocks or sticks landed square on the snake, and killed it. It uncoiled and floated, light belly up.

As we’d been hollering and chasing the snake, my uncle, presumable alerted by our excitement, had come up behind us just as the fatal stone did its work. All he saw was hooting boys killing an innocent creature.

He wasn’t furious, he was disgusted, disappointed. I still remember, as clearly as if it were yesterday, the look on his face. I don’t think anyone had ever looked at me like that before.

Several people have sent me links to news items about the execution of the Bali bombers in the past few weeks, and each time, I’ve had to tell them that I just didn’t know what to feel about it, much less what to think.

I find as I grow older that every year I am certain about less and less.

I’ve said to some folks who asked that although I do not believe that more killing is a good response to killing, if I were handed the gun, or set down in front of the switch behind the one-way glass, or just put into a room with the bastards, I wouldn’t hesitate to exact vengeance for the death of my friend. Pull the trigger, press the button, beat them with my fists. I’ve said to my friends that I am an ape masquerading as a man.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, I really don’t. It sounds good, I suppose, and I’ve always been about the dramatic pronouncement over the measured interpretation.

My old friend Rick, killed in 2002 by the bomb outside the Sari Nightclub.Is the world a poorer place without my friend Rick Gleason living in it? Yes, it is, and the same is no doubt true for the friends and family members of each and every of the other 201 people killed in the bombings. Is the world a better place without their killers living in it? I think it probably is.

A killer named Amrozi who set the bomb, now also deceased.We tell ourselves a lot of stories about ‘the sanctity of human life’. We seem to mean the lives of those we know and love when we talk about it, and that’s not surprising or wrong. We find it hard to care about strangers, and harder to care about strangers whose tribe is different, and even harder to care about those strangers who would do us harm if they could, or leave us to die without compunction. People get all misty about their Jesus and his injunctions to love one’s enemies and turn cheeks.

But we don’t really believe that human life, in the abstract, is sacred, even if we’re willing to go the extra mile and define what we mean by sacred, do we? Not really. We make war, we ignore the roots of violent crime and turn away, we spend millions on blood-fiesta movies and video games and tell ourselves that it’s about catharsis. The best we can reasonably claim to believe is that some human life is sacred.
We’re not bad people, of course, most of us. Actual, personal violence we find shocking, unacceptable, abhorrent. We are traumatized by the headless corpse behind the steering wheel sitting in the puddle of blood and piss in the twisted plastic and metal of the Friday night wreck. We’re dutifully frightened by the TV news items about violent crime that are intended to keep us dutifully frightened and at home watching the sponsor’s messages. But we do love our serial killers and the movies about them, we love our torture porn, we love our Schwarzeneggerian one-liners before the shotgun skullpop, even while we guard our vulnerable citizens against violence domestic and corporal and sexual and even emotional. We righteously and rightfully do our best to end the social conditions that allow such things to happen. And we support our troops. You know, if we have any. We compartmentalize.

I don’t think most of us are all that clear on these things, and I suppose I’m no better than anyone else. See, if we admit that by executing those bastards, and we accept that violence has its place in our attempts to make the world better, we have accepted that violence has its place. This has consequences.

And if we’re not trying to make the world better, then we’re just acting out another episode of the woeful old Jehovahriffic vengeance.

I’m not against vengeance, though I’d rather be a man than an ape. I have to admit that there are times when I want to bare my yellowed fangs and rip out a throat and feel the hot pulse of blood wash across my cheek.

Thirty years later, having returned to the memory many times over the years, I don’t think I wanted to kill that snake. But I’m not certain that that was actually the truth at the time.

Emergency, Reminiscences, Thoughts That, If Not Deep, Are At Least Wide, Uncrappy
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Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. What I DO remember, cuz, is not the snake, but the bats we flailed about for out by the lake. For me – the smallest – it was more fear and mob mentality I’m sure, but the memory that sticks is that we connected with one of those mosquito-hoovers and though we did (at Grama’s behest) give it a proper return to the earth on a fiery pyre – the Northern Lights that night were like nothing I’d ever seen before.
    At that age, those Northern Lights were enough to drill home my own cosmic insignificance, as well as somehow instill a fear that the universe would balance the books on the day’s carnage. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that this balance is of course inevitable, but not anywhere near as formulaic or immediate as it could be. There was no giant Monty Python foot about to squash me like a bug as we sat around the campfire that night. It’s out there somewhere, though.
    I guess I accept that I don’t understand the eye-for-an-eye mentality because I also accept that it isn’t my equation to write.

  2. When I was a kid one Stuart Lake summer, I remember catching a bucketload of sucker fish. When my cousins said we should kill ’em, I grabbed the bucket, ran to the end of the dock, and poured ’em into the lake, saving the poor little fellas. My feeling of triumph lasted only until they floated to the surface, belly up, dead from the force of hitting the water from six feet up.
    I don’t feel much at all about these killers being killed. Although it guarantees these particular people won’t kill again, killer’s are easy to come by. Rick’s still dead, nothing’s changed in my world. So much of the misery in this world seem to stem from the desire for revenge. I won’t play that game.

  3. We are the product of millions of years of evolutionary pressure to kill or be killed. It’s part of us, that whole violence thing. Hockey fights and UFC pay per view and Discovery Channel specials on edged weaponry of the Dark Ages do well for a reason. The sorts of pre-man who thought we were all well and good and sacred and should be left well alone, even if push came to shove has already been bludgeoned to death long ago by one of our ancestors.
    Doesn’t mean it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, of course. Not sure if sowing the seeds of peace with an M-16 and IED really has staying power, but it’s our immediate, easiest to not think about response.

  4. When I heard about the executions, I thought of your friend, and the worry, and sadness you experienced.
    As Bearman says, revenge won’t bring back your friend, and as you say, how can we condemn violence by using violence.

  5. i don’t have a problem with them paying for their choices with their lives. justice/fairness aside, removing toxic attributes from the gene pool is not a bad idea.
    but i DO have a problem with the wider consequences of their punishment being death rather than incarceration.
    in a word: martyrdom.
    rick and everyone else did not die from these men acting in isolation. they died from the pressure of a meme. and the bombers’ deaths only reinforces the meme, and its effects on the far vaster bulk of its surviving influencees.
    the bombers’ deaths will kill more Ricks.
    this is what i see, and despite my rage and desire to hurt as we’ve been hurt, i can not help but see that today is not forever, today does not stand in splendid isolation. the world is what happens next. and so i mourn the bombers’ deaths, not for them, but for others.

  6. I had an almost identical experience with a snake when I was younger. My friend Brendan and I found a harmless black snake bathing in the sun on his stone front steps and we ran to the garage, grabbed hockey sticks and viciously hacked it to bits in a fit of fear, excitement, and horror. His dad came running as we were just finishing and grabbed the hockey sticks from our hands. His looks was one of utter horror and sadness. I’ll never forget it. I wonder how many others have had similar experiences.

  7. My condolences on the loss of your friend and I understand your position. However, you have to understand that the execution of these terrorists was not carried out to avenge your friend, or the other victims, rather it was done to for the benefit of society as a whole. Don’t misunderstand me, I agree that we as civilized people must take a step towards the future and regard all life as sacrosanct; perhaps it will be so in a not so distant future. But we are creatures of the past and the present, therefore we must exist in a time in which we have to use barbarity as a deterrent to those who violate the laws which have been passed. If those laws decree life to be forfeit under certain circumstances that it will be so. Hell, I live in Texas, and it isn’t April yet and we’ve executed the 7th prisoner! Death has to be not only a deterrent, but a means of removing the most vile elements of our society.
    I have a divided house on the death penalty issue, so it is not uncommon for us to talk about this subject. I value the right to life of any human, born or unborn, but I must say that the capacity to forgive and let live diminishes when one is personally affected. Ultimately, it is the right of a civilized society, and the voice of the majority in a republic, to decide the fate of the worst criminals.
    I wonder if a lifetime incarceration is a more conscionable punishment? No, in cases such as this, where the murder of innocents is wholesale or without regard for humanity, death is the only way to rid us of evil men.

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