By Richard Boughton
In the parking lot there is a man with a machinegun. He is dressed all in brown and is wearing a brown beret. The machinegun – or I suppose we would call it an assault weapon these days – is slung from a strap on one shoulder while the weapon itself is cradled on one hip, stock up, barrel down. You see them in the parking lot, in the shopping mall, in the grocery store and on the street. Men with machineguns, crisply dressed, tidy in their uniforms, tucked and polished right down to the boot toes.
It’s one of those things that make Indonesia beautiful – from the schoolgirl in blue skirt and white blouse, bobby socks and tennis shoes to the beige- and gray-clad Barbie dolls at the Matahari store to the jogging, singing soldiers all in khaki fatigues to the parade of Hindu celebrants marching in white linen. Everyone has an identity; each person his place in life, this daily procession of regimen and community, character and conformity. I am a student, I a soldier, I a civil servant, I a clerk – and we all, one and many, are the citizenry of vast Indonesia.
The man with the machinegun strikes a pose, feet parted just so, firearm secure, shoulders squared, beret on right tilt, eyes on stolid, patient alert. He has been trained this way, and inspires – what? Confidence? Assurance? With a dash of apprehension? This is, after all, Bali – the land of suicidal motorbike drivers, the land of the perennially unlicensed and unlearned, where flying by the seat of your pants is the preferred lifestyle – don’t worry, be happy, just do it in Bali, where rules are rumours and laws are idle gossip. Is it really a good idea to put a weapon such as this in the hands of generally questionable authority? Not a popgun, mind you, not a Billy Club or a tazer or even a six-shooter, but a machinegun – a thing that would seem to be of some import on its own merit.
An automatic weapon on public display tends to be automatically unsettling, especially to those who are newly arrived from the West. Has a war broken out? Civil unrest? Are we invaded by Australia, or is the Al-Qaeda snake slithering nearby?
But in fact it is no big deal; and after three years or so the novelty, the anxiety, the surprise wears off, inspiring thereafter but a passing glance, if even that much. It is one of those things about this far-flung island that shock at first sight – an uncommon, eerie, somewhat frightening sight, such that the wide-eyed newcomer is wont to exclaim “My God, that fellow has a machinegun!”
Now admittedly, policemen in America carry handguns, but these are almost always holstered and look not nearly as impressive as a machinegun. A difference, however, may lie in the actual use of the weapon – for while I have not seen, nor indeed ever heard of, one of these Balinese officers actually using his weapon, the pistols carried by their American counterparts seem to be employed on an alarmingly regular basis, which itself seems generally consistent with an all-American love of bullets and loud noises.
I remember one incident in which a mentally ill man, just recently discharged from hospital, ran afoul of the law and was shot 29 times while standing on his own front lawn. He was armed, as I recall, with a table knife, and so was deemed a threat to the safety of the public and of the officers on the scene. Whether these 29 bullets (not counting the misses) proceeded from one gun or from 29, I do not recall. I do remember the incident causing a bit of an uproar. And it occurs to me just now that one man with a machinegun could have achieved the same result with considerably less effort, less cost to the taxpayer, and without having to reload.
Reported recently in the local newspapers of Bali was a curious incident wherein a bank guard suddenly drew and discharged his sidearm several times after being startled by his own mobile phone. Happily in this case, no injuries were inflicted, except to the ceiling. It could have been worse. Just imagine if he had pointed his pistol at the cause of his alarm. And just imagine if it had been a machinegun instead of a pistol.
I suppose there’s something to be said for both types of firearm; but all considered I believe I prefer the machinegun, as long as it comes with the snappy uniform, badges and the boots. Its killing power alone may deter its actual use, whereas the pistol may appear somehow more likely, and thus more dangerous.
But in the end, of course, it’s not the weapon that matters but the man with the weapon. Here in Bali, the machinegun remains a striking accessory.