I FOLLOWED the Sydney siege from Jerusalem, the capital of a nation that does not distinguish much between lone wolf and other acts of terrorism. To most Israelis, Hamas rockets fired indiscriminately from Gaza at Israel’s cities and the murder of worshippers and/or light rail travellers are manifestations of the same thing.
It’s much the same with the general approach to terrorism in the US and Britain, as was evident when watching the US and British coverage of Man Haron Monis’s brutal hostage taking of staff and customers at the Lindt cafe and the subsequent tragic killings.
The US has experienced al-Qa’ida’s organised attack of September 2001, along with the lone-wolf attack at last year’s Boston Marathon. Likewise in Britain, which suffered the attacks on London transport in 2005 and the murder of soldier Lee Rigby near his barracks last year.
In Australia, about 20 Islamists are serving prison sentences in Sydney and Melbourne for conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. But it is only this year that there have been incidents of terrorist-motivated attempted murder (in Melbourne) and now murder (in Sydney).
Yet it appears that to some Australian commentators, the Sydney attack has changed little. In April last year, Monash University academic and ABC Radio National presenter Waleed Aly wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that “terrorism is a grotesque form of theatre”. Without evidence, he declared “the perpetrators” of the Boston Marathon bombings were “self-styled American patriots”, extreme right-wing activists.
Aly’s hunch was wrong. The murderers were lone-wolf Islamists. Yet what was particularly surprising about Aly’s analysis was its complacency. He identified with the “sober, pragmatic recognition that terrorism is a perpetual irritant and that, while it is tragic and emotionally lacerating, it kills relatively few people and is not any kind of existential threat”.
Needless to say, to the dead and wounded in Boston, the bombers engaged in a murderous action far beyond a mere irritant. It is not clear if Aly has changed his position that terrorism is a perpetual irritant. But he appeared on Sky News UK on Tuesday and described the Sydney hostage-taking as “radicalisation at a distance”. According to Aly, the likes of Monis make work especially difficult for security. Quite so. Yet this does not mean that such terrorism is anything but an existential threat.
Last year, Boston was locked down for days. This week, sections of Sydney have been locked down. The prosperity of Western societies depends on the free movement of people and goods. Consequently, all forms of terrorism, organised and lone wolf, are capable of imposing an existential threat to virtually all societies.
The Aly position has support in Australia. On Tuesday, Australian National University academic John Blaxland wrote on ABC website The Drum that the idea of the Sydney siege “being symptomatic of a broader existential threat is overstated”. He linked Monis with Ottawa terrorist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, whom Blaxland described as a “lone and unhinged zealot”.
In a tweet on Wednesday, barrister Julian Burnside joined the chorus, telling his fellow citizens to “calm down” and describing the Lindt cafe incident as a “criminal act by a deranged person”, adding that Muslims “reject it”.
It’s true most Muslim Australians rejected Monis’s criminality. But some, including jihadists Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar, who are in Iraq or Syria, supported Monis. Moreover Monis, who claimed to have abandoned Shia Islam for Sunni Islam, claimed to be a supporter of the so-called Islamic State and to be following the orders of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Monis also said that he was a terrorist. If someone who says he is a terrorist engages in a self-declared terrorist act, it makes sense to regard his actions as terrorism.
Monis’s action was not mere criminality because he declared a political purpose for his actions.
Also writing on The Drum on Tuesday, ANU visiting fellow Clarke Jones criticised much of the media coverage of the siege. According to Jones, if the words terrorism, Islamic and Islamic State had been taken out of the reports, the incident would have gained relatively no attention.
This is a profoundly silly statement, even for publication on the ABC’s website. Monis said he was an Islamic terrorist who supported Islamic State. Moreover, for more than a decade he had paraded himself as a Muslim cleric. During this time, he received a soft sentence for writing to the relatives of dead Australian Defence Force victims of the Afghanistan conflict and generous bail for the serious offences of accessory to murder and multiple sexual charges.
It is also likely that Monis’s various appeals, all the way to the High Court, over an (alleged) right to correspond with the relatives of deceased ADF members, were funded by the taxpayer through legal aid schemes.
We shall not know the full details of the tragedy at least until the intelligence report ordered by Tony Abbott is released. However, early evidence suggests that Monis may have been successful in trading off his alleged victimisation as someone who promoted himself as a Muslim cleric.
It would seem that Monis received very gentle treatment from commonwealth and state government departments, as well as from within the NSW judicial system. In fact, he won refuge here and benefited from Australia’s free health, education and social security systems. He was no victim.
It’s unlikely that Monis’s case will change the left intelligentsia’s attitude to national security. Last month, on ABC TV’s The Drum, David Marr declared that “the amount of fear being thrown into the community at the moment is disgraceful”. On Tuesday, Marr wrote in the Guardian Australia that Monis’s actions in the Lindt cafe “seem to owe as much to Hollywood as terrorist manuals”. Except that Hollywood’s “victims” are neither an irritant nor even an existential threat.