The real victims in the 'war of terror'

The real victims in the 'war of terror'

In the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, the Australian prime minister at the time, John Howard, showed his first and arguably greatest act of leadership. Tough new gun laws were introduced, and semi-automatic weapons were bought back across the country and melted down for use in innocuous items such as chicken wire.

By the end of Mr Howard’s seemingly infinite 11 years in office, however, his leadership had become small-minded and he increasingly resorted to cynical means to maintain power. One of his government’s tactics was to prey on xenophobia, treating refugees as potential terrorists to arouse a climate of fear and secure votes. Most infamously, he declared before the 2001 election that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

Sadly, it worked. Also sadly, successive governments have continued playing the race card. Australia, a nation built on migration, became a less warm and welcoming place, and refugees arriving in boats are now treated like criminals or turned away. Counter-terrorism laws are broad and secretive investigative bodies are given sweeping powers to monitor people who are deemed suspicious.

None of this explains why Man Haron Monis took 17 people hostage in a Sydney cafe on Monday, which ended early the following morning with him and two hostages shot dead. However, it does help us understand some of the reaction and overreaction to the tragedy.

The moment he forced a hostage to hold up a black flag with Arabic writing, he was transformed from a desperate man with a history of violence into the symbol of the country’s greatest fears. More than that, for a day he became the face of Islamist terrorism for the Western world.

This was aided and abetted in no small part by Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid, The Daily Telegraph, rushing out a special edition wraparound with an image of the flag and the headline “Death cult CBD attack” that said, wrongly, that Islamic State was behind it. Other news organisations repeated the error.

Monis was a violent man who took extreme measures, but he was no terrorist mastermind. However, the Iranian-born self-styled Islamic cleric has been made out to be one because it fits a narrative that the Western world is familiar with.

Murdoch’s news organisations have not been alone in perpetuating this, but they have played a prominent role. His national broadsheet newspaper, The Australian, on Friday shamefully conflated the siege with counter-terrorism raids that, police suspect, do have some connection with Islamic State. “Just days after the deadly Martin Place siege in the CBD,” read the second paragraph, under a headline that mentioned the siege. Only further down does the report spell out that the latest raids have nothing to do with Monis whatsoever.

In the US, Murdoch’s Fox News used the siege and its deadly outcome as a chance to demand Australians have freer access to guns, ignoring the reality that fewer guns has led to fewer gun deaths. The US is the last country that should be lecturing others about gun control, with 10.3 deaths for every 100,000 people compared to Australia’s 0.86. The debate was also being held in a week when six people were shot and killed in Philadelphia.

The most troubling reaction to the siege came from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who announced a review of counter-terrorism measure. Critics are now worried that Mr Abbott’s review will lead to further draconian measures.

He also said he was “incredulous and exasperated” that Monis had been walking the streets and wanted to know why the hostage-taker was not on any spy agency watch list. Mr Abbott was clearly aware that Monis was out on bail, but apparently conveniently forgot that none of the charges against him were related to terrorism.

Mr Abbott used dog-whistling politics, and it has worked. The lawyers who defended Monis and the magistrate who granted him bail have been subjected to death threats. This, unfortunately, is the lack of political leadership Australians have come to expect.

Tragically, the crime in Sydney was thrown into chilling perspective a day later when the Taliban murdered 148 people, mostly children, in Pakistan. Where one was the random act of a lone criminal, one virtually impossible to guard against, the other was a coordinated and planned attack by a terrorist network.

In November alone, 5,000 non-Westerners died in terror attacks, mostly at the hands of the Islamic State or Boko Haram. Terrorist attacks are increasing in the West, but Islamic fundamentalism extracts its biggest toll on poor Muslims. The "war on terror" might be largely rhetorical in the West, but in places like Pakistan it is all too real.

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