Unfortunately, we have now sufficient experience of terrorist incidents to formulate a simple rule: namely, almost everything said in the first few days after the event will later prove wrong.

That’s not merely because of the speed of today’s media cycle (though Twitter did not exactly crown itself with glory as an information source yesterday). More importantly, terrorism has been so fundamental to mainstream politics that empirical reality matters far less than the pre-prepared scripts that play out almost of their own volition, on the Right and (to an extent) the Left.

Thus, with the siege still underway, the Daily Telegraph printed a 2pm edition with the grotesque headline ‘DEATH CULT CBD ATTACK’, for which it was duly congratulated on Twitter by the Sith Lord Murdoch himself.

Perhaps more significantly, the Tele also ran the headline ‘The day Sydney changed forever’, a sentiment that sat rather awkwardly with the slogan running simultaneously at news.com.au, ‘Terrorists, you’ll never change who we are.’

That juxtaposition illustrated how free floating the terror narratives have become. The immediate response to any new incident involves the deployment of prefabricated phrases that are not so much unrelated to the specific episode as they are entirely untethered from the world altogether.

For instance, we’re told repeatedly that any whiff of terrorism should paralyse the nation entirely – ‘changed forever’, don’t you know. Yet, as Peter Hartcher points out, the persistent efforts by politicians to talk up the level of fear that they (and, by extension, we) were feeling clashed with the images of the crowd gathered at the siege parameter:

The police evidently had the situation in hand. The crowd was curious, but might as well have been watching a busker for all the tension in the air. Some onlookers snapped photos. Some left as others arrived. The scene was perfectly calm.

It was only when I turned on the TV an hour or so later that I realised the magnitude of our dimwittedness. We were supposed to be terrified.

Taking selfies at a hostage drama might be tasteless (especially when people subsequently died) but it’s not indicative of the total panic that grips pundits and politicians at the mere mention of the T-word. Never mind: News’ Paul Toohey did the best he could by describing the ‘unnerving calm’ of the crowd (nothing scarier than calm!) as he explained that ‘the War on Terror has arrived’.

Why, it’s almost like they want us to be frightened!

Already, we’ve seen the hatemongers of the fascist groupuscles calling openly for pogroms, while the usual elements of the media fan every anti-Islam rumour they can dredge up. Expect this to build to a crescendo in the days to come.

Fortunately, it’s not clear that the conservatives are in a position to foster or capitalise on an Islamophobic wave. Tony Abbott might be glad to see the budget pushed from the front pages but the disarray within the coalition and its supporters seems so endemic now that it’s difficult to imagine the crisis being resolved by the politics of distraction. What’s more, the rapid proliferation of the #illridewithyou hashtag suggests a growing confidence among anti-racists.

Let’s stress again: we still don’t know the facts. But it seems increasingly unlikely that the hostage taker had any relationship to ISIS whatsoever.

He’s been identified as Man Haron Monis. The Sydney Morning Herald explains:

Last year he was charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and mother of two.

Most recently, he was charged with more than 50 allegations of indecent and sexual assault relating to time allegedly spent as a self-proclaimed “spiritual healer” who dealt with black magic at a premises in western Sydney more than a decade ago.

ISIS kills those it accuses of practicing witchcraft. It certainly doesn’t enlist them.

Yes, Monis called himself Muslim. But for most of his career he proclaimed himself to be an Iranian Shia cleric – another identity that would get him murdered by the Sunni sectarians of ISIS.

If there’s any consistency to his actions, it seems to be a longing for attention.

An episode of the ABC’s Religion Report features him, under the alias Ayatollah Manteghi Boroujerdi. You’ll note that he refers to Australia as ‘heaven’; you’ll also note that, at that time, he was chaining himself to parliament.

His subsequent behavior suggests that he was not at all stable, almost a serial pest. After Monis began sending threatening letters to the families of dead soldiers, Shia leader said they had no idea who he was and suggested he might be ‘a fake cleric deliberately stirring anti-Islamic sentiment’.

The SMH account continues:

He was charged in November 2013 with being an accessory before and after the fact to the murder of his ex-wife Noleen Hayson Pal.

Ms Pal was stabbed and set alight in a Werrington apartment block.

Droudis has been charged with the murder.

And then in April this year, Monis was charged by sex crimes squad detectives with the indecent and sexual assault of a woman in western Sydney in 2002.

Monis might have used the rhetoric of jihad when he seized the café. But it’s not exactly rare for a delusional man with a history of violence against women to act out murderous fantasies based on whatever material comes to hand. In that respect, the Sydney siege doesn’t seem so different from the tragedy that unfolded in Brunswick, Melbourne, a few weeks ago – an episode in which two people died.

In response to both events, we might profitably launch a discussion about how Australia deals with mental illness and whether or not those at risk of a psychotic breakdown are receiving the help they need. Nothing would save, quietly and undramatically, more Australian lives than a successful program assisting victims of domestic abuse and rehabilitating the men who threaten them.

That would be the best tribute to those who have lost their lives.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Why turn this so quickly into ‘left versus conservative’ click bait? It’s ghoulish and opportunistic. Overland can and should do better.
    How about paying tribute to the innocent lives lost and the devastating impact on the hostages and their families. Now that wouldn’t be proved wrong, would it?
    Surely your ‘analysis’ can come later. People are grieving.

  2. It is an interesting reflection by Mr Sparrow and apt in response to the clumsy reporting or the incident. While it is in essence a ‘mental health’ issue, many extreme movements find their cadres, or cohorts among those with mental health issues, especially their leaders.
    Surely there’s nothing balanced about ISIL/ISIS, or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, or the Nazis for that matter.
    The hostage taker was enthused by extremist values, in fact his lawyer makes that very clear on the ABC RN interview.
    All you need now is fanatical mentally ill individuals and you have a ready made terrorist lone wolf – Political sociologist, Wolfgang Sofsky pointed to these type of ‘terrorist acts’ – acts motivated by a belief, or acts validated by some form of belief – as the new form of unilateral, lone-wolf terrorism many years ago.

  3. This is the most sensible analysis I’ve read. This situation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: we have little scope other than to name this act “terrorism” now, because it has become so by dint of media saturation and the political rhetoric that cultivated it.

  4. Well put. Certainly classical terrorism depends on media outlets magnifying and amplifying events such as the one yesterday. Outside of what we all knew almost immediately from news reports, that an armed gunman was detaining people in a city building, the media, like us, had nothing to say, so news became dramatic backfill and speculation as it does so often, with the potential to make the situation worse rather than better. Full marks to Peter Hartcher from the SMH though, and the further elaboration here into mental health issues.

  5. The other anomaly in all this being that, through some strange inversion, events only seem to become real once they are reported on “the news”. Better improve the reporting of news, methinks, if we wish to get real on critical issues and situations.

  6. Nice piece Jeff. And while the actions of Haron Monis may well eventually be cast as a ‘mental health issue’it’s most likely a gendered issue too. With his history it is reading a lot like every other action of public violence by a man seeking endorsement for imagined wrongs. In terms of getting an understanding of his actions it will probably become useful to look at it through a lens of family and sexual violence,and the lack of legal and political willingness to address that.

    1. Yes, it reminded me of the earlier discussion: ‘What is it with you men?’ — When you hear Monis’s history and think, Hey if he had perpetrated such violence against black people and they had not been properly heard and then all hell breaks lose when he acts against whites, you get the picture of what it’s like to be a woman vs a man. Sure this guy was really sick and just so happened to be a man but you really wonder if a woman would have gotten away with the behaviour he displayed up to the point where he lost it completely. Just as disturbing — the female accomplice! Yeah: what is it with us women?

  7. Jeff, I would hope that we punish the men who hurt women before talk of rehabilitation. You do not seem to mention this in your article.

  8. “In response to both events, we might profitably launch a discussion about how Australia deals with mental illness and whether or not those at risk of a psychotic breakdown are receiving the help they need.”

    As someone who works in mental health, is it agonising to see this line of rhetoric being trotted out yet again. I thought as a society we had moved on from ascribing negative traits to groups – you know, like being racist, or homophobic, or sexist. The mentally ill are, somehow, still fair game, even for hand-wringing leftists.

    You do not seem to understand what psychosis is, perhaps mistaking it for psychopathy. And the modern habit of ascribing every act of violence to mental illness is so, so problematic and stigmatising.

    For years and years people with experience of mental illness have fought against this lazy, populist reasoning (“oh, he must be mentally ill”), but it keeps coming up.

    There are so many people working in this field, experts who you clearly have not bothered to talk to. To be honest, it is best not to speculate on a subject you clearly know nothing about.

  9. Oh, and on your about page, you have this priority:

    – social justice, in the broadest sense of that term, applied to both the cultural and political spheres

    Discrimination against people with experience of mental illness is a social justice issue. I can’t link here, but look up “social justice” + “mental illness” and have a long think. Otherwise, don’t claim to stand for social justice, because you demonstrably don’t.

    1. KJM, I don’t believe this article is discriminating: this is a humanist argument. In such a secular argument, is it off-limits to suggest the gunman is mentally unstable? Or do we just ascribe his actions to pure evil? I don’t find this offensive or stigmatising, even though I myself have a diagnosed mental illness. No-one would read this article and go away stigmatising the mentally ill any more than they’d stigmatise those who are male. Further reading at Crikey: “Gunman is a criminal, not a terrorist.”

  10. I also have a diagnosis, and have done anti-stigma work for nearly ten years. You may not find it offensive, but this kind of casual correlation of violence and mental illness affects many, many people, every day.

  11. “No-one would read this article and go away stigmatising the mentally ill any more than they’d stigmatise those who are male.” That’s incredibly optimistic, and I would hope it is true, but in my experience it is not.

  12. Interesting, and maybe yes, Australians should be thinking hard about the cuts to mental health services in this country that are being rolled out as this story unfolds…

  13. religeous extremism is in itself a product of people who, in stark contrast to logic or reason, feel the need to adopt what reasonable people would identify as mentally unwell behaviour. This behaviour is consistent with all religious affiliated extremism. This is what most would constitute as delusional. Whether the man had direct IS connections or not is irrelevant. He was inspired by the same motivations; a need to create and draw attention towards IS (as clearly delineated in the videos). Innocent people have died and as such, as soon as the jihadist flag was raised, this became a much more serious matter. It would be ignorant to write this off as a mental health issue. There is a very real threat of terrorism and affiliated behaviour currently in this country.

    1. THe threat of terrorism is the behaviour of the people through electing political parties that unquestionably implement U.S. foreign policy. IF you want peace, don’t be aggressive!

      1. Of course Zac, everyone knows if you sit back and do nothing, extremelist groups will stop there aggression. Look at history, it works everytime.

  14. Unfortunately, the last paragraph implies that there is a link between mental illness and domestic violence. People who experience psychosis are far more likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators and to hastily wrap up an article with a reference to mental illness and DV is irresponsible. We know very little about Monis and to speculate about wether he had a mental illness, or to suggest he was delusional or psychotic is unhelpful, we don’t know what his mental state was walking into that cafe. His history of gendered violence is known, in this respect a dialogue about how we respond to that issue would be worthwhile, however please keep this separate from mental illness and acknowledge the two do not go hand in hand.

  15. I am most disturbed by the fact that the charges for violence against women are glossed over in the media. But, the sending of letters, admittedly horrible letters, is considered more serious than 40 plus accusations of sexual assault and being the accessory to a murder. This man should never have been out on bail, the fact that he was shows women that they are second class citizens. This man was violent, mental issues do not excuse violence, but the message with how this man was dealt with in our courts tells us that if your victims are women that this does mitigate your violence, especially since sexual assault is so hard to prosecute in our adversarial system.

  16. I would like to know if he was on any medication, anti-depressants?? It’s not questioned enough and studies have been done and the results are horrific. It is in the interest of the drug companies not to have studies done of course.

  17. Some faitly sensable points in the article. Nothing like a media frenzy to sell more advertising. Did I hear correctly that one of his demands was for an ISIL flag? What self respecting terrorist would forget their flag! It would be funny except its sad that simply an evil man did this and is hiding behind religion.

  18. What a load of rubbish this article is, the perpretrator has shown exactly were his loyalty lies since coming to Australia. Only the completely delusional or blind would think he didnt do what he done in the name of islam, he didnt exactly hide the fact did he. Just because he didnt have any formal links means nothing, Isis has being calling on followers to cause chaos and destruction were they can, they didnt ask for then to contact them first before carrying out any acts of terroism. These lone wolfs are exactly who isis and other groups are talking to when they make there pleads to the public. To blame this on mental health is just a copout, as some of your readers have pointed out, its a smite on those who actually have mental health issues. The fact is anyone who kills or maims deliberately would seem to have mental health issues to most rational people. Im sure to some muslims we have mental health issues as we dont believe what they do. As for the so called contradictary headlines, well if you cant work out how citizens can carry out there lives as normal while the city itself can be changed forever then your obviously nowhere as smart as you believe you are.

  19. I can’t believe that I am reading such a lot of academic claptrap!
    This man was a criminal!
    He should not have been out on bail!
    His intention was clear, he wanted to be noticed whether that was due to mental illness or not is irrelevant.
    He had no intention of leaving that cafe without taking innocent people with him.
    Stop trying to guess his reasons and and make excuses for his deads, did any of you know him?
    We really don’t know what motivated him and we never will.
    He was a bad man it is as simple as that and at fifty there Is no way he could have been rehabilitated.

  20. Our immigration system is corrupt. Our court system is corrupt. Our police are corrupt. Our foreign policy is corrupt.
    Our religion is corrupt. Our education system is corrupt. And we expect better than what we get? Riiiiiight.

  21. The last sentence says it all: In response to both events, we might profitably launch a discussion about how Australia deals with mental illness…threaten them.

    This could be applied world-wide. So little help and understanding of mental illness.

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