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The Risk Perception of Bomb Attacks

Antonius Wiwan Koban, Jakarta
The Jakarta Post. January 2, 2006

“Serious security threats from terrorists to all Americans & Westerners in Indonesia. Avoid visiting western country embassies, western pedestrians….” Foreign residents and tourists in Indonesia, especially in Jakarta, are very familiar with that kind of warning message which is circulated officially by the embassies or unofficially from person to person via short message services (SMSs) or e-mails and mailing lists.

That sentence is a kind of current warning message targeted to foreigners living in Indonesia. But how about the Indonesian people themselves? Are they also aware about the same threats in the same areas? What is their perception about security threats in Indonesia? How do Indonesians perceive the probability of becoming the victims of terrorist attacks?

To mention the terrorists’ bomb attack incidents, as we notice, the “top five” bomb attacks during the years 2000-2005 in Jakarta and Bali have killed hundreds of people and injured many more.

Terror bomb attacks could occur at any time and could be directed at any location. For most people, they never know when and where the incident might take place. It is a probability. Perception about the probability of something we do not want to happen but might happen is a risk perception.

Risk perception towards the terrorists’ bomb attacks, as the other risk perception in general, can be seen as two components.

The first one is the perception about the probability of the severity of the incident. The second one is the perception about the probability of that risk that would really happen. It is about perceived vulnerability. Each of us has our own self-vulnerability risk perception.
A rough description about how Indonesian citizens perceive the probability of terrorist’s bomb attacks is reflected in the security check procedures in public buildings such as office buildings, hotels and shopping centers in Jakarta.

Firstly, let us see risk perception in the physical sense. At a glance, most of those public buildings in Jakarta now have been equipped with security check portals. When they were built, and how they were built reflected the dynamics of the building’s management risk perception. Earlier it was built as an early warning system to increase the awareness of the terrorist attacks.

Some portals have been changed from temporary to permanent. If budget constraints do not matter, in the case of a temporary security check portal, it can be suspected that terrorist attacks are perceived as temporary threats. Or maybe it was built just as formality on orders or instructions without any risk awareness consideration. Recently in Jakarta, we see that most buildings treat their security portals as temporary constructions.

Secondly, then let us see risk perception as reflected in the mental way. As a routine on a daily basis activity, security check procedures might be done slightly. It is a very usual scene that we see the security crews just slightly check visitor’s stuff. The potential cognitive error is the procedures to screen any dangerous stuff, since so far they find nothing, might be taken as “looking for anything and guessing it is impossible to find”. That way can lead them to underestimate risk perception.

As bomb attacks increase, levels of risk perception about probability of being attacked by terrorists’ bombings should be increased too. But people often have optimistic biases about self-vulnerability. When judged about their own chances, people claim that they are less likely to be affected or to become victims than others.

Indonesians feel helpless and vulnerable because the uncertainty of the bombers’ targets. Because of the bomb incidents in Indonesia look like there is no special target, which means the bombers did not care about whom their bombs victimized, so most people think there is no difference whether they think seriously about their probability to be under attack or do not think about it.

Indonesians sometimes also have become so accustomed to helplessness that it leads them to underestimate risk perception. The Indonesian lay people often think that all of the bomb attack threats are out of their personal control. Then they would agree that it is all about faith, “being under attack or to die is fate. If God wishes us to die, then we will die. Only God knows when, where and to whom it would happen”.

Unfortunately, this belief sometimes turns out to be a justification that the risk is uncontrollable so any effort to prevent it would be useless. To avoid this, self-efficacy should be increased, for example, by having proper equipment and by having proper early warning in structural levels and also by undertaking appropriate emergency responses exercised on a personal level.

The same belief, fortunately, also can be a good entry point to educate the public on risk awareness. The critical point is if people believe that no one will know the time, place and the target of the bomb attack, they should always be aware of the uncertainty. That is the very meaning of life, it is a risk.

The writer is a Social Researcher at the Indonesian Institute in Jakarta. He can be reached at antonwk@cbn.net.id

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