Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
A small group of bearded young men commit an outrageous multiple murder. The youths belong to an immigrant community that perceives itself under siege from the police; they practice a minority religion regarded with suspicion by much of the population. In self-justification, they talk about the persecution inflicted on their co-religionists overseas; eventually, they commit themselves to the creation of a homeland here in Australia.
In the midst of a full-blown panic, the Victorian parliament passes draconian laws drastically curtailing civil liberties, and the police launch indiscriminate raids on ethnic minorities. The bearded men make a suicidal final stand; most of them are killed, without a chance to surrender, by a special police squad, and the leader is taken into custody and executed after a dubious trial.
Ned Kelly has been a Rorschach test for so many generations that, with the news that his bones may (or may not) have been located at Pentridge, it seems appropriate to remix his story for the Age of Terror.
Kelly, of course, identified as Irish and Catholic rather than, say, Arab and Muslim but the relationship of those identities to the mainstream was not so dissimilar. Rather than an inner city posse, Ned belonged to the “Greta Mob”, a gang of flash youths who stole horses rather than cars and signalled their identity by wearing their hat straps under their noses in a nineteenth century equivalent of the reversed baseball cap.
His outlawry might have been sparked by clashes between police and his family but he also saw himself as fighting for something much bigger. Ian Jones, the pre-eminent Kelly historian, claims that the gang planned, after the Glenrowan confrontation, to declare a Republic of North-Eastern Victoria. Not quite the Caliphate but not so very different, either.
“It will pay the government,” Kelly explained in his Jerilderie Letter, “to give those people who are suffering innocence justice and liberty if not I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victorian Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army.”
It’s the kind of message that these days features on Al Jazeera.
The government response sounds equally familiar. New laws allowed the Kellys to be shot on sight, and gave the police the power raid houses without warrants and prosecute anyone withholding information. In January 1879, some twenty men went to jail for “having given information to an outlaw and his accomplices, contrary to the fifth section of the Outlawry Act” and for “withholding information relative to the Kelly gang”.
As for Kelly’s trial, it might not have been a military commission but nor was it full and fair: Kelly’s barrister lacked experience; key witnesses were never presented; Redmond Barry was clearly biased.
Of course, historical parallels are never identical. Kelly was neither Osama bin Laden nor Che Guevara nor Chopper Read; his story needs, ultimately, to be understood on its own terms. But the comparison still bears thinking about.
In the wake of 9/11, we were told the world had changed for ever, that this was a situation with no antecedents, and thus we couldn’t even debate the extraordinary measures put in place.
It rather changes matters to consider an Australian icon as a terrorist of the 1870s.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.