Inequality kills. The growing imbalance in the distribution of our wealth has a death toll. In late 2014, two individuals in different circumstances took violent and homicidal action, only a few days apart. Aside from timing, there isn’t, at first glance, much that links the actions of Man Haron Monis and Mersane Warria, the Cairns mother charged with the deaths of eight children. It is, however, the stark difference between the two acts that brings into greater clarity our shared responsibility for the current character our country.
One was the crime of a father who is survived by his children, the other the crime of a mother who survives her children.
Monis created a spectacle in the centre of our metropolis. Our viewing was an integral part of the crime – he wanted to sublimate his own physical (and frustrated) life into martyrdom, finding ongoing existence in the minds of a viewing public. He planned his crime for maximum exposure. In the process of taking hostages in a cafe on Martin Place during mid-morning on a weekday, he was taking the nation at large hostage. The drama was picked up across all the major TV networks. The action and reactions were everywhere on social media. For a few days afterwards no polite conversation was complete without reference to the event.
Where Monis attempted to create something – an event writ large – Warria’s objective appeared to be nothingness. By allegedly killing all her children, combined with what appeared to be an attempt at self-harm, Warria seemed to be cutting herself out of the world entirely. Not only would she die but so too would all her descendants, as if she was attempting to erase her very existence – except that the obscenity of the action meant that it punctured its way into our lives.
There is meaning in the form of Monis and Warria’s actions. In the gun there is sound, in the knife silence.
A rich iconography has grown around the Sydney siege. We all recognise the symbols. The black flag in the window, the hostages running with hands held high, #illridewithyou, the shrine of flowers in Martin Place, the pilgrims and the pilgrims who visited it.
For Warria, instead of symbols there is absence. Monis’ crime creates an iconography; in Cairns there is effacement. With Warria’s actions, besides flowers and grieving relatives, the only word is the deed. Ironically, while Monis’ act is infused with a twisted form of Christianity, the action of Warria (a recently recommitted Christian) seems more in keeping with an inverted version of Islam.
Monis, the criminal, dies at the hands of the state, alongside two respected members of society, in a spectacle that takes hours. The Lindt cafe became his upside-down Calvary.
Warria, like the Taliban, rails against mobile phones and television. No one listens. She becomes a female Abraham, willing to sacrifice her children with the knife. But there is no intervention, only judgment.
All we have left is suffering, injustice and responsibility. It falls to us to make sense of these events. As a nation, we have reacted to the siege with a great noise and to the stabbing with relative silence. That’s because, when we lay one crime on top of another, there’s one element that doesn’t fit – the spectre of Islamic terrorism.
Imagine Rupert Murdoch tweeting the following comment as a reaction to the Cairns stabbings:
Maybe most Christians peaceful, but until they recognise and destroy their growing fundamentalist cancer they must be held responsible.
The improbability of such a statement highlights how ‘Islamic terrorism as a threat to our whole society’ is unique to the Sydney siege. Murdoch’s use of cancer in his tweet is informative. Cancer is an existential threat to the body in which it is located. The cancer metaphor tells us that Islamic terrorism is a threat capable of killing the entire body politic.
Murdoch appears almost subtle compared with Tony Abbott. In response to the horrific Charlie Hebdo massacre, Abbott labelled IS a ‘death cult’ that has ‘declared war on the world’ (notwithstanding that at the time of his comment it was not clear to which extremist groups the Charlie Hebdo attackers were linked). It would be hard to envision a greater threat to civilisation than a death cult at war with the entire world.
The thing about this unique element is that it doesn’t actually exist. Obviously, people carry out violent acts against unarmed civilians for the furtherance of political objectives associated with some interpretations of Islam. And of course this is wrong.
Terrorism, however, is a strategy born of weakness and a lack of hope. It only has a certain logic when you have no prospect of winning a meaningful number of people in your community over to your cause and no other means to redress your grievances.
The terrorist is a pathetic figure.
Terrorism exists. Islamic terrorism exists. Islamic terrorism as an existential threat to our society is non-existent. It’s a projection that we use to explain as an external cause the divisions and tensions in what should otherwise be a harmonious society. We tell ourselves that everything would be fine if not for the existential threat posed by Islamic terrorism.
But the Cairns stabbings say otherwise.
In the space of a few days late last year, eleven members of our community were killed. Islamic terrorism as an existential threat masks the very real divisions of wealth and power that run between and within us in Australia. The real threat is growing inequality – an inequality that frays the bonds of civility that bind us and produces an unbalanced society. Monis and Warria both occupied positions on the fringes of our community, unstable people grappling with the frustrations of an unequal and unfair society. Their violence highlights their relative impotence as members of our political community.
I write this not to take away the personal responsibility of the actors involved but to highlight how we are all involved. As the chorus to such events, we too must bear responsibility. I do not attempt to absolve the two individuals but rather to implicate all of us. We know that both homicides and mental illness rise with inequality. Inequality has a death toll. The circumstances may not always be as dramatic as the Sydney siege or the Cairns stabbing but people die as a result of our unequal economic system. The narrative changes but the end is the same. It is the instability that inequality produces that can see our society topple.
In death, Monis will escape responsibility for his actions. Warria will have to take responsibility at trial. In a crime of effacement, the trial and its surrounding coverage, will be a form of punishment for her. For the rest of us, when we know certain political choices have foreseeable outcomes then the outcomes become our collective responsibility. It is our collective duty to fight for an equal Australia. It is our responsibility to take power.
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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