Category Archives: Cronulla riots

“You have to die, so that I can live.”

Last night, I watched a rather depressing documentary on SBS called The Anatomy of Evil. It was about people who perpetrate genocide. I’ve been morbidly fascinated with this question for a while now, as I’ve explained in an earlier post. I’ve never quite been able to fathom how people could shoot/gas/blow up an innocent civilian.

This documentary consisted mainly of interviews with former members of the Einsatzgruppen and Serb paramilitaries, each of whom conducted ethnic cleansing of villages by lining up people and shooting them at point blank range. Some interviewees were unrepentant, and said they’d “do it again if it was necessary”. Some still regarded the people whom they had shot as sub-human. A few regretted their actions and felt less than human.

The director, Ove Nyholm, concludes that the trigger which compels ordinary people to behave like this is anxiety and fear of a threat. In such circumstances, people put aside normal feelings and become ruthless. This is a survival mechanism, and can actually be a positive thing. People can survive in terrible circumstances through sheer willpower. But in the scenario where a group of people who live alongside you are identified as the threat, there is a risk that you will become ruthless towards those people and cease to see them as human. Add to that a wartime context where violence and killing is condoned and people are forced to follow orders, and the results can be deadly. And there’s the notion of retaliating for past wrongs. One of the most unpleasant interviewees featured in the documentary cited the fact that his family had been driven from Kosovo by Albanians in the past, and that he felt satisfied and a sense of righteous revenge when killing villagers and burning down their houses. Another interviewee said that he became a member of the paramilitary group after his own parents had been brutally killed.

It occurred to me too that this analysis can also help explain other wars and ethnic and religious conflicts which do not involve genocide as such, but where innocent civilians are killed.

Take, for example, terrorist attacks. The way in which terrorists become galvanised to kill innocent people is by considering wrongs done to their own people, and desiring to take revenge. I recall that during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, someone forwarded a Powerpoint slide of dead Lebanese civilians, including a young boy. The purpose was obviously to provoke outrage against Israel. If I was a radical Hezbollah supporter, I am sure that such pictures would be used to whip me into a state of righteous indignation and revenge. And I am sure that an Israeli defending the incursion into Lebanon would ask me to consider Israeli civilians injured or killed by Hezbollah rockets, or Hezbollah terrorist bombs. They might also point to the suffering of Jewish people in the past in Europe as a reason as to why Israeli territory should be staunchly defended. Personally, I consider the loss of life on both sides to be tragic. Neither side can be said to be blameless, but by the same token, the natural human propensity for revenge makes the outraged response of each side understandable. This is why I am so reluctant to “take sides” in discussions on the Middle East, although I am a firm believer that the State of Israel has a right to exist in its original boundaries.

Conflict is fuelled by the notion that the other group represents a threat to the way of life or security of the group. Sometimes, as in Israel, Northern Ireland or Cyprus there are settlers and occupying forces. Sometimes there are competing claims to the same piece of land, or the same holy site (as with some mosques which are targeted by Hindu militants in India). Sometimes the particular ethnic group wants to be separate from the rest of the country, as with Basques in Spain, Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere and Tamils in Sri Lanka, because they feel that their way of life and culture is not adequately represented by the government of the particular country of which they are a part. Sometimes, the victimised group is a minority who have been made a scapegoat for a nation’s ills (as with Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany, who were targeted because they were different).

When terrorist attacks are mounted, there are retaliatory attacks, often by armed forces. So the US felt justified in attacking Afghanistan because its innocent citizens had been killed by a terrorist plot which had been planned from Afghan territory. One can understand this. The perpetrators had been sheltered by the Taliban regime. But the problem with attacking terrorist or guerilla groups with military force is that they tend to blend back into the normal population, so when you attack them, there is a risk of killing and wounding innocent civilians, which further fuels the fires of righteous outrage.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, I just know that we should be wary of those trying to whip up moral outrage, whatever side they are on. Take the Cronulla riots in Sydney. Those organising the rally whipped up moral outrage against young men of Middle Eastern background who had been harrassing beachgoers. Yes, it’s true, harrassing innocent people at the beach is a bad thing. As a result of the rally/riot, several people “of Middle Eastern appearance” were beaten and attacked. Bashing people who happen to look like they come from the Middle East is also a bad thing. Then young men in Lakemba whipped up moral outrage to fuel a retaliatory attack. Attacking the houses and cars of people in Maroubra is another bad thing. The thing is that it’s all bad, and it’s mostly innocent people on both sides who suffer.

Perhaps it’s just instinctive that the “ruthless” switch is tripped when we feel that our safety, territory or way of life is under threat. Perhaps we need to recognise that it’s all just part of the way we’re hardwired. Of course one is outraged by injustice suffered by one’s family, friends or compatriots. How much worse would it be if someone in your family or friendship group is killed by a particular group? I’m not sure how I would cope in those circumstances. As Nyholm said in the documentary, he had to acknowledge that he had doubt as to how he would behave. I don’t know either. I’ve never known how I would behave if I were in the Milgram experiment, although I hope that I’m ornery enough to disobey orders. I do hope that if my “ruthlessness” switch was tripped, I would be able to recover my reason and morality. As one of the interviewees said, the scary thing is not that man becomes a beast, but how long he remains a beast.

Perhaps we need to consider that old piece of Klingon wisdom: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. (Seriously, its first recorded use in that form is in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…the things you learn from Wikipedia!) When our moral outrage switch is tripped, perhaps we need to be aware that our “ruthlessness” switch may also be switched on at the same time, and guard against taking out our anger against anyone who is or may be associated with the group who is said to be morally outrageous. It is difficult to look into the heart of human darkness, but I am glad that I had the courage to watch this documentary.

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Filed under Cronulla riots, good and evil, human rights, Iraq, middle east, morality, Political, politics, psychology, religion, terrorism, tolerance, torture, Uncategorized, USA, war

Shock jocks and the politics of fear…

A recent report by ACMA found that Alan Jones had encouraged violence and brutality and engaged in racial vilification of people from a Lebanese Muslim background. I must confess that I didn’t know who Jones was until a few years back. In Melbourne, he doesn’t have any influence (at least, as far as I’m aware). It’s scary to think that he has a lot of influence in Sydney. Jones’ influence can be seen from the responses of John Howard and Kevin Rudd to the finding: each said they had no problem with Jones’ conduct, and would continue to appear on the program if requested.

The history preceding the findings against Jones should be set out before looking at the allegations in detail.

On 4 December 2005, two or three off-duty volunteer lifesavers were reported to have been assaulted by a group of Lebanese men at Cronulla beach. Jones mentioned the issue on his program on from Monday 5 – Friday 9 December 2005. It was alleged was that gangs of Lebanese men had been harassing beachgoers over a number of years, that it was a persistent problem and that the State government and the police were unwilling or unable to do anything about the matter.

On 7 December 2005, Jones read out a letter from a listener:

‘J’ has a good answer, he says police and the council are impotent here; all rhetoric and no action: “My suggestion is to invite the biker gangs to be present at Cronulla Railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive, the biker gangs have been much maligned but they do a lot of good things – it would be worth the price of admission to watch these cowards scurry back onto the train for the return trip to their lairs…and wouldn’t it be brilliant if the whole event was captured on TV cameras and featured on the evening news so that we, their parents, family and friends can see who these bastards are…Australians old and new should not have to put up with this scum…

[offending statement emphasised]

On 8 December 2005, Jones mentioned a text message which was being sent around which stated, “This Sunday every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and Wog bashing day, bring your mates, let’s show them that this is our beach and they’re never welcome.” He then said:

“And I say to all those young – hey, you’re not in charge of law and order, we do have law and order people. Boys, don’t get down there and come at this nonsense, this will only make things worse. The police are genuinely concerned now that the SMS is going to inflame things even further and we’ll – we’re talking about vigilante retribution.”

A caller, ‘B’, contacted Jones on 8 December expressed concern that the issue was not as one-sided as it had been portrayed, and that both sides were egging each other on. Jones responded as follows:

“Yeah, let’s not get too carried away ‘B’, we don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney. So let’s not get carried away with all this mealy-mouthed talk about there being two sides. I can tell you, because my correspondence here from mums and dads I am inundated, and I don’t hear people complaining about Catholics and Protestants and Anglicans, I’m sorry, but there’s this religious element in all of this and we’ve got to make sure that we welcome people into our community but we welcome them in on certain terms and certain standards and those standards are not being met. So let’s not have this mealy mouth talk about oh well, everyone’s to blame. All across Sydney there is a universal concern that there are gangs, the gangs are of one ethnic composition, and they have one thing in mind and I’ve read some of the correspondence from here…”

[offending statement emphasised]

On 11 December 2005, there was a gathering of people at Cronulla beach to “reclaim the beach”. Although the event started off peacefully, the demonstrators began to assault people of a “Middle Eastern appearance”. They also threw cans at and attacked police and ambulance personnel. On the evening of 11 December and the following day, there were retaliatory attacks by groups of youths of “Middle Eastern appearance”, in which vehicles and shops were vandalised, some people were assaulted and one man was stabbed. This event later became known as the 2005 Cronulla Riots.

There was a perception that the NSW State government trod very lightly on this issue because of fears that they could alienate a certain sector of the voting public. It is worth noting that Lakemba is in Premier Iemma’s electorate. But this does no one any favours. In the long run, it increases tension and resentment. Jones was able to pick up the perception of preferential treatment, and use it to his advantage. If there is a problem with ethnic gangs in Sydney, it should be faced openly by all (police, government, Lebanese-Australians and other Australians). Gang members should be treated equally by police and the government, regardless of their ethnicity. It is not good to try and suppress concerns on the basis of “political correctness”.

I think it is a mistake to simply write off the Cronulla riots as “racist”. As caller ‘B’ said to Jones, there are two sides to every story. On the one hand, groups of young men (seemingly of predominantly Lebanese extraction) were coming to Cronulla beach to make trouble. But on the other hand, it is not fair if innocent people (Lebanese, Middle Eastern or just “of Middle Eastern appearance”) are prevented from coming to Cronulla beach or are abused because of their appearance. As I have always said on this blog, people should not be judged on the basis of their ethnic background or their religion, but by their behaviour. Each group needs to take a long hard look at violent, racist behaviour within their own community, and make it clear that there is no excuse for picking fights or harassing innocent beach goers.

It seems clear, also, that there was a failure by the State government to take the problem seriously until matters had escalated. If there had been more police available to patrol the beaches before the riots occurred, and to nip any fights in the bud, it may be that the riots would not have happened.

It seems to me that Jones’ comments were very ill-considered indeed, and he certainly inflamed tensions. The comment that really gets my goat is “we don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney.” This suggests that Anglo-Saxon men do not commit rape, but Middle Eastern and Lebanese men do. Anyone who looks at criminal law cases involving rape will know that rapists come from all ethnicities and backgrounds. One only has to look at this report about two recent rapes to establish this (one rapist appears to have been an Anglo-Australian man, born and bred here; the other appears to have been a dark-skinned man who originated from another country.)

To my mind, Alan Jones is no better than the Mufti, Sheik Hillaly. The Mufti suggests Australian women are asking for it; Jones suggests that all Lebanese Muslim men are rapists. Both comments are utterly irresponsible. Both pander to popular stereotypes held by their respective audiences, and do not admit any moderation. I believe that Jones should resign, just as I believe that the Mufti should resign. Rape is not about how much clothing the victim is wearing. Nor is it about the ethnicity of the perpetrator. Both of these things are excuses. Rape is about power, and a desire to degrade the victim.

The comment about “we don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney” refers to the Sydney gang rapes committed by the Skaf brothers and their associates. The perpetrators were of a Lebanese background. This underlying issue contributed greatly to the tension leading to the Cronulla riots. Bilal Skaf was alleged to have taunted his victims about their Australian background. He is said to have called one rape victim an “Aussie pig”, asked her if “Leb cock tasted better than Aussie cock” and explained to her that she would now be raped “Leb-style”. Another victim was said to have been told by a perpetrator, “You deserve it because you’re an Australian”. Although I apologise for the offensive nature of these comments, I have set them out in full to show that a passing reference by Jones to the matter was capable of creating great anger and distress in listeners.

As I have discussed before, if there was not a racist element to the crime, the background of the perpetrators would be irrelevant. But because of the racial motive, the ethnic background of the perpetrators should be mentioned, because otherwise the crime cannot be fully understood.

However, the media has to be responsible about the way in which it reports and deals with these problems. People who hold a great deal of power to sway public opinion should be very careful. Just because some Muslim Lebanese people are thugs does not mean all Muslim Lebanese people are bad. By the same token, just because some Australian people are thugs does not mean all Australians are bad. While one should not be bound by “political correctness”, and should be able to say that particular people within a group are behaving badly, it is irresponsible to suggest that an entire community is bad. To suggest that the problem only comes from one group or the other does not help matters at all. It just inflames tensions further, and increases resentment between the two groups. But I suspect that is how a demagogue like Jones gets his jollies.

I really dislike the politics of fear. It results in bad decisions. It allows an angry mob to jump to conclusions. It is difficult to control once released. I am very wary of appeals to mass prejudice – that way lies immense evil. I wish our political leaders had had the courage of their convictions to reject the siren call of people like Jones.

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Filed under Alan Jones, Cronulla riots, islam, media, racism