Late last year, a think tank called the Australian Security Research Centre (ASRC), whose staff includes former members of ASIO and the US Department of Defense, announced a new short story competition called ‘Australia’s Security Nightmares’, inviting ordinary-ish Aussies to submit terrorist plans as pieces of fiction.
The competition’s goal, according to the editor’s preface by Dr Athol Yates, was ‘to produce a set of short stories that contribute to a better conception of possible future threats and help defence, intelligence services, emergency managers, health agencies … [et al.] to be better prepared’. Elsewhere, under the heading ‘Why are we doing this?’, the organisers quoted Foreign Policy magazine: ‘Shortly following the September 11 attacks, the US Army enlisted the help of some of Hollywood’s top action screenwriters and directors, including the writers of Die Hard and McGyver [sic], to conjure up possible scenarios for future terrorist attacks.’ They continued: ‘The ASRC wants to foster imaginative thinking so as to ensure Australia is better prepared to deal with the varied threats facing our security.’
It all sounds very neutral and technocratic (albeit somewhat bizarre). Still, we’re dealing with nightmares here – security nightmares. And the interesting thing about nightmares isn’t whether they have a chance of coming true but rather how they reflect on the dreamer.
‘Security-nightmare lit’ is a venerable genre, with a history that deserves to be better known. Its modern heyday came in the Edwardian era. With the British Empire in decline, paranoia was big business. Edwardians had a bottomless hunger for insane, xenophobic doomsday scenarios, and so writers had to be inventive. Joseph Conrad and GK Chesterton thought up terrorist scenarios; HG Wells predicted tank warfare.
The Edwardians have never quite left us. Their aesthetic – with its scenes of mundane middle-class activities punctuated by explosions, invasions and fights over Very Special Briefcases – is the one update in each new wave of jittery, nostalgic nationalism. (What better way to bring the terror close to home than putting bombs next to scones?) The Edwardians glamourised spying like William S Burroughs glamourised hard drugs – not just with their novels, but with their lifestyles. John Buchan, for instance, was the prototypical author-spook who turned intelligence work into a cool, ‘literary’ profession. It’s a tradition Julian Talbot (chief sponsor of the ‘Australia’s Security Nightmares’ competition and the subsequent anthology of the same name) is eager to milk: ‘[C]learly, judging by the quality and number of contributions to this competition, many security professionals also have the potential to make a good living by indulging their imagination and the public’s desire for quality fiction.’
Instead of watching 24, the Edwardians, as Claud Cockburn noted, read bestsellers like Guy Thorne’s When It Was Dark – a real seat-gripper about a Hebrew plot to discredit Christianity with false archaeological evidence, and thereby plunge the world into anarchy.
Jews, of course, were acceptable bogeymen back then.
In 1913, Saki wrote a German-invasion thriller called When William Came. It’s a tame novel by today’s standards. Saki imagines the Kaiser capturing Britain with a quick naval strike … and that’s it. Really, that’s it. For Saki, the big dystopian shocker was simply the idea of London ruled by a foreign power, with (gasp!) different uniforms and an eagle instead of the Union Jack. There are other atrocities: the German nanny state forbids Londoners from walking on the grass in public parks; it gives police constables (and other commoners) a pay rise; the city fills up with Jewish immigrants, beer gardens and cabaret halls.
As one of Saki’s heroes puts it:
[The Jews] had appreciated the free and easy liberty of the old days, under British rule, but there was a stiff insularity in the ruling race that they chafed against. Now, putting aside some petty Government restrictions that Teutonic bureaucracy has brought in, there is really, in their eyes, more licence and social adaptability in London than before. It has taken on some of the aspects of a No-Man’s-Land, and the Jew, if he likes, may almost consider himself as of the dominant race; at any rate he is ubiquitous. Pleasure, of the café and cabaret and boulevard kind, the sort of thing that gave Berlin the aspect of the gayest capital in Europe within the last decade, that is the insidious leaven that will help to denationalise London. Berlin will probably climb back to some of its old austerity and simplicity, a world-ruling city with a great sense of its position and its responsibilities, while London will become more and more the centre of what these people understand by life.
That’s what disturbs Saki, an Edwardian Tory, most: the thought of Jews and cabaret singers turning stout-hearted Britons into bright young things who passively accept their loss of empire.
Saki himself took the German ‘threat’ seriously. When the First World War broke out, he enlisted, despite his age, in the Royal Fusiliers, and died at the Somme. The war that killed him also killed his novel – after four years of fighting and ten million deaths, the quick, soft, bloodless invasion in When William Came was a bit hard to sell as dystopian fiction.
If there is one thing that annoys me about the invasion fantasies of these ordinary(-ish) Aussies, it’s the innocence. Seemingly half of the stories in Australia’s Security Nightmares begin by emphasising how happy, carefree and naive ‘we’ were before the big-catastrophe-that-changed-everything. The story ‘On Virgin Soil’ begins with a female narrator recalling her shock at Princess Di’s car accident, and how 9/11 left tears of disbelief ‘streaming down [her] face’. Another story, the unsurprisingly titled ‘We Were Young And Free’, rambles on for pages about how cheerful and ignorant ‘we’ used to be: living in the lucky country, singing the national anthem, ‘proudly celebrating all this land had to offer’ and ‘frolick[ing] in [its] vibrant waters’.
If you’ve read John Marsden (a Buchan devotee who says he was inspired to write his Tomorrow series by ‘a conscious desire to revive adventure stories for young people’), you’ll be familiar with the treacly drivel I’m talking about – that old story about a bunch of schoolies who are just having a summah when the invasion force comes, and suddenly everything’s oh-so-real to them.
It’s perverse. What Australia’s Security Nightmares shows, unmistakably, is that average Aussies are more than capable of dreaming up plots to kill hundreds of Sydneysiders, disable Melbourne’s power grid, lace bombs with asbestos and knock out large sections of the economy with cheap sabotage. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise: how many office drones privately wish they were Tyler Durden from Fight Club? How many teenage losers fantasise about going Columbine on their schoolmates? And who – in an industrialised, capitalist society – hasn’t daydreamed just once about miraculously surviving a bird flu epidemic and finding themselves with acres of empty land? (It’s not just fear that drives the survivalist mindset, but also a kind of greed, a desire to join a new landed gentry by surviving some twenty-first-century Black Death.)
A decent number of middle-class people in affluent countries really find it calming to think about mass destruction. They imagine themselves ruling over a Mad Max wasteland, even if – in real life – they are scared of dark streets and impeccably polite to muggers. But when these writers set their fantasies down on paper, the Aussie characters they create are shocked – shocked! – by the security threats they have to face.
It’s – it’s all – just so – unthinkable!
The stories might have been less torturous if we were dealing with straight alarmism, a typical paranoiac’s fantasy of self-importance, applied to Australia as a whole. But typical paranoiacs tend to carry a bit of guilt with their grandiosity, some sense of transgression that has made them a magnet for universal hostility: ‘Ever since I exposed the Illuminati on my GeoCities page, I’ve had white hatchbacks driving past at all hours.’
In all but a few stories in Australia’s Security Nightmares, we have a paranoid mood without a grand transgression, without any context at all – not even a false one. It’s not the American fantasy we’re all accustomed to, that of a nation under attack for its ‘exceptionalism’.
Instead of exceptionalism, we get overweening innocence.
You might not think one could squeeze much fear out of that. But innocence means something to Australians. It comes with being a second-tier power. If American war hawks yammer about the ‘importance of the mission’, their Aussie counterparts – since Vietnam at least – have gone for the complementary excuse: ours is just a ‘token commitment’ and what we do hardly matters … so we may as well be sociable and bring a slab to America’s barbie. You’ll hear similar rhetoric around climate change, which also appeals to Australia’s existential lightness-of-being. Token commitments are a peculiar aspiration of ours – the idea of a guiltless involvement that isn’t really involvement, of ‘punching above our weight’ without dirtying our hands.
Britain’s picked up an equivalent mythology. With no empire left to brag about, it can only pretend to be pluckier than America (or invert the token commitment ironically – James Bond saves the world before the Yanks arrive, too late for the action).
It’s no surprise, then, that we would dream up the same ‘guiltless’ involvement for our domestic thriller scenarios. While 1980s Hollywood films like Red Dawn and Invasion U.S.A. involve a clearly Soviet occupying force, our answer to Red Dawn – Marsden’s Tomorrow saga – keeps the ‘enemy’ country unnamed, even with Suharto’s nasty little junta in easy reach. Marsden might have done better, in fact, if he had written an anti-Suharto fantasy. Instead, he went for squeamish half-engagement, creating a featureless Asian enemy that arguably made his books more racist than if they’d attacked a specific regime.
The opening story of the anthology is set at the Sydney Mardi Gras. A new law has been passed recognising gay marriage, and angry Christian fundamentalists decide to bomb the pride parade. They hide the bombs in symbolic hourglass-shaped plastic chairs ‘like [the ones] you can buy from Kmart’, dress up in clown suits and distribute the chairs to the Mardi Gras audience. A cop figures out the scheme in the nick of time and apprehends the evil clown, who shouts, ‘Jesus Christ will condemn all you sodomites to hell!’ He then pulls out his Nokia 3310 detonator, looks triumphant and –
BOOM! The cop kills him with ‘a single gunshot’ to the heart.
But the juggalo has already pressed the ‘Dial’ button. So, ‘thinking quickly’, our hero rips the phone’s battery out ‘milliseconds before’ Darlinghurst is turned into a smouldering rubble.
It’s a laughably bad piece of storytelling. The plot (evildoers handing out sinister novelty items to the unwitting public) reads like a clumsy theft from a 1970s Doctor Who episode or a Golden Age Batman comic. So why would the ASRC award the story third place in its competition?
Why? Because it pays to look sensitive – and a thriller about shooting homophobic terrorists makes the spook profession look very sensitive. Travel agencies and furniture outlets are not the only ones who have learnt that a rainbow flag can be good for business!
The smarter right-wing bigots have the diversity game figured out pretty well by now. You only have to look at how anti-immigration rhetoric has changed over the last thirty years. This is how Frank Knopfelmacher concluded his essay ‘The Case against Multiculturalism’ in Robert Manne’s 1982 collection The New Conservatism in Australia:
The problem is to combine ethnic intake with cultural assimilation into anglomorphy. To date it has been fairly successfully done as I have tried to argue, which means that it can be done. Minor difficulties should not divert us into suicidal experiments. Major alterations in the balance of power, the growing economic downturn in the world, and even a local disaster (e.g., a new regime hostile to us in Indonesia) may confront us with dangerous problems beyond our power to tackle or to evade. Yet, whatever happens externally, it is better to face it, like the Poles, as a culturally unified nation, capable also of drawing on the resources of the greatest of modern civilisations of which we are a part, the fount and origin of which is in the British Isles, rather than as a banana republic of squabbling and mutually resentful expatriated mini-cultures, each with its own separate bunch of ethnic (or conversely, Anglo-racist) führers, and widely open to internal subversion.
Nowadays, that rhetoric has taken a U-turn: it’s no longer cultural unity that’s (allegedly) at threat from immigration but rather cultural diversity. To quote a Geert Wilders speech from the Q Society website: ‘Europe is a cluster of nations. The strength of Europe is in its diversity. Uniformity is a characteristic of Islam, but not of Europe.’
Corey Robin has argued in The Reactionary Mind that the Right constantly renews itself by scavenging – and reversing – rhetorical tropes from the Left. That’s what’s happening here: welcoming immigrants from Islamic countries becomes a form of ‘colonialism’, or as the Q Society puts it, an ‘ethno-religious apartheid’.
Some of Wilders’ allies, like Mark Steyn and the late Pim Fortuyn, even attack migrants with appeals to LGBT rights. Old-hat bible-bashers might still scream ‘Think of the children!’ but the more refined neocons have learned to scream ‘Think of the gays!’
But let’s not imagine Wilders and the Q Society actually believe in ‘democracy’, ‘diversity’ or ‘individual liberties’. Whenever they mention these things, there’s always a qualifier attached – ‘Judaeo-Christian’. For the Q Society, the real basis for tolerance, diversity, freedom, democracy – and yes, even secularism – is the religion of the Old Testament. Q Society president Geoff Dickson writes:
Throughout the centuries Christendom and Judaism have undergone many reforms, because the core teachings allow for a separation of church and state, unlike Islam which demands total submission. History has shown that nations based on Judeo-Christian values have developed and thrived whereas those societies based on Islamic Sharia Law have floundered.
Under Islam there is not [sic] tolerance and freedom for other faiths or socio-political systems.
Perhaps it could be argued that Western Enlightenment values appeared as a response to centuries of bloody sectarian wars, but that isn’t what Dickson is claiming. To the Q Society, Judaeo-Christian religion is the continuous source of secularism: ‘Christendom and Judaism’ didn’t just play a historic role in the development of liberal humanism, they are constantly needed to maintain it. Otherwise, if this weren’t central to their argument, Dickson and Wilders wouldn’t stress the religions’ contemporary importance.
It would be odd to imagine such rhetoric coming from Tories a century ago. Saki would never have thought of appealing to diversity – it was Britain’s ‘stiff insularity’ he supported, set against the cosmopolitanism of the Other.
But Islam, as pictured by today’s fear-mongers, is the opposite of cosmopolitan. In his introduction to Wilders’ Marked For Death, Mark Steyn accuses Dutch-Moroccans of bashing gays, harassing Jews and turning laid-back, pot-smoking Amsterdam into a ‘profoundly illiberal hell’.
An Italian friend of mine has this to say about Wilders: ‘Remember [that] 99 per cent of these little fascists used to be hippies, Trotskyites or Stalinists thirty years ago.’ It’s a good point. John Marsden was a Whitlamoid stude before he turned war hawk (he still has a sour, faintly scruffy, bolshie-teacher earnestness to his features) and Geert Wilders was the spitting image of a bearded, shroom-eating Euro-backpacker.
So where do you go for inspiration when you’re a shattered pothead eager to make it on the New Right? If you’re as unimaginative as Wilders, you’d recycle what bits of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonialism you can remember and wedge them back-to-front into your new white Christian victimhood pose. If you’re Marsden, you’d take the occupation of Tibet – an old Lonely Planet-ist rallying point – and transpose it onto Australia. Voila! Instant neo-Edwardian Yellow Peril!
What other villains do Australians imagine in their security nightmares? Some stories feature generic terrorist organisations, mostly with inventive names like ‘the Revolutionary Council’, whose only goal seems to be causing terror. A terrorist scenario by Jamie Derkenne – which happens to feature in the aptly titled story ‘Terrorist Scenario’ – has the evil ‘Council’ blocking off Sydney’s main motorways by parking trucks filled with rubble across multiple lanes, disabling the tyres and filling the engines with water. Once the city is ‘effectively crippled’, they announce that they have detonated a dirty bomb: ‘10 grams of polonium dust seized from Dabaa mixed with several kilos of talcum’. Over a hundred Sydneysiders are crushed to death trying to board trains and ferries. The dirty bomb turns out to be a bluff.
It’s a very Christopher Nolan-ish work, with a very Christopher Nolan-ish Toryism – the villains may be a generic brotherhood of evil (six mysterious men, all found to be ‘nationals of another country’) but the story’s real damage comes from the irrationality of the mob. (Compare this to Nolan’s A Tale of Two Cities re-hash in The Dark Knight Rises, or the torch-bearing Arabesque crowd from Inception.)
In a couple of stories, though, the bad guys are lefties. Rather improbable lefties. Here is the climax to Dr Shauna O’Meara’s ‘The Plague Most Feared’, where saboteurs infect Australia’s livestock with foot-and-mouth disease, forcing massive culls.
The woman at the door added, ‘Terrorism is always discussed in terms of train stations and public buildings, but the complete collapse of our livestock industry … You’re talking a multibillion dollar meat and milk trade, not to mention the spin-offs: leather, semen, genetic losses, animal transport, saleyards, shearers, the price of milk, small town survival … the list goes on.’
‘It’d be cheaper if they blew up the Opera House.’ Sara agreed.
‘And if you’re right, who are we looking for?’ the Chief Government Vet asked.
The replies came from around the room.
‘Animal lib. Some groups would accept the culling now if it destroyed the industry long term.’
‘Terrorists. Perhaps this fellow was happy to overcome his fear of pigs for a few days.’
‘A competitor with endemic FMD trying to level the playing field.’
‘A competitor without FMD looking to knock us off.’
‘The RSPCA trying to ban live export.’
The RSPCA? Look out al-Qaeda – there’s a new name in terror!
Andrew Pickersgill’s ‘…Continued from Page 1’ has an attack on a Victorian coal power plant. Along with regular explosives, the bomb is lined with pesticides and asbestos to deter emergency workers, one of whom becomes terminally ill after breathing fumes from the shrapnel. The villains are implied to be ‘greenies’.
But the most inventive story in the contest is a sick, fear-mongering masterpiece called ‘Centre of Attention’ by Richard Simpson. Here’s the scenario. A Muslim named Mehmet Rachid unwittingly contracts Marburg virus (Ebola’s gentler cousin) while on pilgrimage to Mecca. He brings it back to Australia, causing a nationwide outbreak, border closures and race riots.
The kicker is that he’s not a terrorist. The story makes it clear: ‘That name, of course, belongs to Mehmet Cengiz Rachid. Husband. Father of two. Proud Australian. Devout Muslim. Unwilling martyr.’ (If that’s not Aussie enough, Simpson also makes him a tradie.)
Rachid, we learn, ‘had done the right thing before he left [on his pilgrimage]. He visited his GP a number of times for his vaccinations and collected the plain photocopied handouts from his mosque about infection control and handwashing for pilgrims.’ But still, he’s mingling with three million people from around the world and by the time he arrives back in Melbourne, he’s down with the bug.
It’s the perfect fantasy for neocons: a clean, patriotic, law-abiding Muslim who, regardless, causes hundreds of deaths just by being a Muslim.
The whole right-wing brains trust – writers like Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, Clive James and Michel Houellebecq – has been scratching around for a scenario like this for over a decade. You can see the problem: how do you make moderate Islam scary – intrinsically scary – without actually charging every Muslim in the West with sedition? Evangelical Christians have the same challenge trying to convince everyone that God hates the sin, but loves the sinner. That’s a big lie, of course. Bible-bashers might pretend there’s a Platonic gayness for them to hate that has nothing to do with ‘the sinner’, or an abstract kind of abortion they can despise without despising women (just as Wilders might claim to hate ‘Islam’ without hating Muslims). But sins don’t exist without people, and neither do religions.
But with Simpson’s epidemic scenario, you don’t need to accuse Muslims of high treason to condemn them. You don’t need to accuse them of having any ill feelings towards Australia at all.
Nearly every story in Australia’s Security Nightmares offers the same phony Marsden-style innocence: the premise that security disasters can be contemplated as generic events with only a very sly nod to the political context, that it’s enough for a writer to show (I’m quoting Marsden) ‘the thoughts and feelings of characters who are struggling to make sense of their lives, who are trying, sometimes almost reflexively, to move forward’. In Marsden’s world, an invasion is just a thing that happens, just another teen issue for young adults to cope with and make sense of, all the while gawking in disbelief and wondering what it all means. The characters never ask how it started or what motivates the enemy or anything that would suggest critical thought. Politics and geography are too mature for Marsden’s YA books – but, of course, shooting people to death isn’t.
In ‘Centre of Attention’, it’s not just the ordinary(-ish) Australians who are blameless: their Muslim bogeyman has also been given his own contrived halo of innocence. In fact, his innocence sustains theirs – as a glowy symbol of their inclusiveness – even while it broadens their range of anxieties.
Marsden’s and Simpson’s xenophobia provides a cloudy double-innocence. Marsden’s heroes never bother to learn the enemy’s language or culture. It’s always a blank to them – and as long as they don’t know the people they kill, they’re as guiltless as Adam and Eve.
The young protagonists’ reflections on the lives of the soldiers they have shot remind me of an old Saturday Night Live ‘Deep Thoughts’ sketch:
When I found the skull in the woods, the first thing I did was call the police. But then I got curious about it. I picked it up, and started wondering who this person was, and why he had deer horns.
As a Jack Handey skit, it’s hilarious; as a political strategy, it’s scarily impenetrable.
The ‘innocent’ xenophobe’s biggest shield is eternal curiosity – the power to pretend, in the middle of fear-mongering, that they still haven’t made their mind up about anybody.
Anyone who’s watched an already-mean, manipulative relative fall into dementia will know what I’m talking about: there’s nothing cleansing or ennobling (or pacifying!) about forgetfulness. The fountain of amnesia turns gits into bigger gits – bigger gits with an endless, internal source of plausible deniability.
Who – me?
It’s almost, in fact, a nightmare.
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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