Rundle: Monis was a criminal. The Tele made him a terrorist.
The Australian tabloids gave a lone gunman exactly what he wanted — the association with Islamic State.
There’s a lot of competition for what Andreas Baader of
Baader-Meinhof fame called “the most fucked up mission” in the crazy
1970s. Baader was speaking of the Stockholm siege hostage drama mounted
to free him and his co-conspirators from prison, but there’s no shortage
of others. Violent movements that began with some political aim and
comprehensibility in the 1950s and 1960s, such as the Algerian
revolution, became the mere pretext for a series of floating obsessions
by the 1970s. One characteristic of this kind of violence is the
relatively dispassionate and rational focus of its perpetrators.
Obsessive mental disorganisation is what marks out the end of the
process. The Algerians had a country to win and an empire to break. The
Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped Patty Hearst in 1975, was a
six-strong guerrilla band, led by a manipulative petty
criminal-turned-insurgent named Cinque and based in a share apartment in
Oakland. The 1960s, rich in so much, had become the 1970s, the “me”
decade, denuded of collective meaning. There would always be enough
people so desperate to give a collective heft to their private feelings
of alienation that they could wrap someone else’s flag around them and
go to war.
In our era, Islamic fundamentalism has taken the same path.
It arose in the Arab world, because Marxist and nationalist visions of
independence had faded (and a lot of Marxist and nationalists had been
killed). In Iran and Afghanistan, it had clear but limited historical
and territorial aims. Out of that came a movement, al-Qaeda, which
claimed a territory — the caliphate — so vast in conception that it
became universal. The caliphate was everywhere, and everyone could be
part of it. Such a conception empowers and arms people like the UK’s 7/7
bombers, who met as part of a network at a gym rather than a mosque.
And it gave meaning to the actions of Man Haron Monis and the resolve to
stage a piece of lethal theatre that, without the politics, he might
never have attempted, or not in the same way.
Narcissistic and manipulative, Man Haron Monis’ crimes to
date were those of an opportunistic man, albeit one with a strong dash
of Messiah complex. He may have murdered his wife. He appears to have
been that most familiar of figures, the alternative therapist who
doubles as a sexual predator. The vicious letters he wrote to the
families of service people had a Messianic touch to them as well. His
conviction, and the failure to overturn it by the High Court, was a
standing rebuke to that idea of himself. The enraged hostage-taking was a
way of dealing with that. Taking on the colours of the Islamic State
gave it meaning and collective connection. All it required was big R
recognition from the big O other — consecration by the world that his
lonely battle was a historical struggle.
The Daily Telegraph gave it to him.
In the list of demands Monis made, he offered to release one
hostage in exchange for an Islamic State flag. The police didn’t give
it to him. The Tele did, and without getting the hostage. Its front covers were an
Islamic State flag, doing the work of that organisation’s propaganda
department — using a spurious event to extend the reach of the
“caliphate”, into the territory, and into everyday life. The signal fact
of Australian life has been that there has been no visible Islamic
State act on our territory; those young men who have gone to fight for
IS in Syria appear to have taken seriously IS’s claim that their first
task was throwing out the invaders in the region. Whether some will come
back with violent intent here is unknown. But if they did, the act
would be nothing like John Wojtowicz’s crazed, lethal Dog Day Afternoon stand-off.
The Tele’s desperate attempt to create a coherent
political terrorist event out of this familiar scenario — a violent
narcissist who has painted himself into a corner — was joined by all the
usual and increasingly desperate right-wing crew. Even the News Corp
crowd who had flirted with the libertarianism of Spiked — which regards both the Tele’s
absurd covers and the #illridewithyou hashtag as complementary
generators of fear — had to return to a neocon insistence that we were
at war with an implacable foe who presented an existential threat to us,
which would occur one violent fucked-up chocolate shop operation at a
This is the endpoint of the decades-long complementarity
between the neocon Right and violent Islamist fundamentalism. They will
now actually do its propaganda work for it, for they need something that
will reflect them — a religious-political movement — while also being
able to define the superiority of Western civilisation against it. That
such aggrandisement portrays Western civilisation as fearful,
unconfident and jumping at shadows is unimportant so long as the
fragile, disappearing meaning of the West is maintained.
Unimportant too is the question of whether such
aggrandisement actually weaponises craziness, whether coverage of this
sort breeds copycats, who know that their deaths will gain not merely
fame but also meaning, by virtue of the press. Future victims are
unimportant, but so too are present ones, whose tragic deaths are used,
vampire-like, for the means to an end. The nihilism that Islamic
fundamentalism has drifted into has its mirror, too.
Or, to put it another way, one fucked-up operation.