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.