Security at Parliament House was “boosted” after last week’s shootings at Canada’s National War Memorial and parliament in Ottawa, one media outlet reported on Thursday, although the boost was perhaps merely in relation to visibility — a “symbolic” move, the ABC said. Security at Parliament House is plainly a touchy subject now, after revelations last week that the circumstances that led to the now-rescinded decision to separate visitors because of their religious beliefs and confine them to a glass chamber, were confected. Coalition politicians Bronwyn Bishop and Stephen Parry overruled advice from officials in order to exploit an invented claim about a burqa-based protest at Parliament House — phoned in to a radio station — to claim there was a plot to disrupt parliamentary proceedings.

Just for a moment, we saw publicly exposed how politicians exploit terrorism, producing national security based on bigotry, bullshit and Chinese whispers.

But why had security been boosted on Thursday, symbolically or otherwise, because of events on the other side of the world? That wasn’t explained, or asked — people simply accepted that that’s what one does in such circumstances. It was up to Tony Abbott to make clear the link. He convened a meeting of the national security committee (sans the Defence Minister, who correctly observed he had nothing to offer) and declared the attack was “further confirmation that the threat to free countries and free institutions is very real indeed”.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop went further, diagnosing terrorism at work. “The Canadian authorities haven’t made the connection, but I have to say it does have a hallmarks of a terrorist attack,” said Bishop. On Friday morning, Abbott singled out the Last Post, a daily ceremony at the War Memorial, as a specific terrorist target, despite the head of the War Memorial, Brendan Nelson — a former Coalition defence minister, as well as opposition leader — saying there had been no threat.

But the lack of evidence of a threat isn’t a problem any longer, because the “lone wolf attack” is the new black in terrorism narratives. “Lone wolf” terrorism is an answer to what you do when you can no longer credibly talk of an “existential” terrorist threat. There will continue to be efforts to claim Islamic State has access to weapons of mass destruction: it now controls Al Muthanna, where Saddam-era chemical weapons, purchased by Iraq from the West with US support and funding, had been stockpiled (albeit in conditions as dangerous to the handlers as to intended targets), while conjecture about, if not Ebola bombers, then bubonic plague bombers, could yet breathe some bacilli-laden life into the theme. But after hyping the threat of Al Qaeda and its putative arsenal of dirty bombs, chemical weapons and bioweapons for much of the 2000s, authorities were left in a quandary in their efforts to sell the threat of IS by the apparent decline in the ability of contemporary terrorists to successfully conduct mass casualty attacks, especially given security institutions advised IS presented no threat to countries like the US.

“Recognising that mental illness may play a role in some circumstances where an individual embraces political or religious violence might … disrupt the convenient notion that we are innocent, passive victims of irrational evil.”

Thus, self-radicalising “lone wolves” have now become the new threat, extremists who determine to engage in small-scale attacks using whatever resources come to hand, without communicating with anyone about it. They may not be able to do much damage, but the sheer randomness of their attacks somehow makes up for that. One “expert” even claimed such attacks could be “more powerful in terms of its psychological impacts” than mass casualty attacks.

The “lone wolf” theme complements the “viral” theory of terrorism, that Islamist extremist terrorism does not — as repeatedly argued by intelligence and law enforcement agencies — happen in response to Western military interventions in Muslim countries, but because individuals somehow contract the disease of terrorism, either via interpersonal encounters or, increasingly, via exposure, to use David Irvine’s wonderful phrase, to unfettered ideas on the internet. And while devoting law enforcement and intelligence resources to stopping “lone wolves” is considered a waste, the positive side is that they can justify a permanent heightened sense of fear about the terrorist threat.

The reality of “terrorism” is rather different. We’ve noted previously the way in which political violence by white people, mostly white males, isn’t seen as terrorism in the same way that violence by Muslims is. And the role of mental illness and drug use in terrorism receives little attention. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the Ottawa gunman, was a crack addict with a long history of drug addiction and mental instability who had repeatedly tried to get imprisoned in order to escape drugs. In New York, the Newburgh Four, a group serving 25 years in jail for a 2009 plot to bomb synagogues and shoot down military aircraft — a plot organised and led by an FBI informant from the start — involved a group of desperately poor drug users and a schizophrenic.

In fact, the FBI has a history of entrapping mentally ill people in terror plots: a Californian man sentenced to 15 years in prison for planning to blow up a bank as part of his “jihad” had a history of mental illnesses and substance abuse. Like the FBI, terrorist recruiters also tend to target the mentally unstable as likely to be more responsive to their overtures. Australian IS member Mohammad Baryalei also has a history of drug abuse and mental illness; another Australian involved with IS, Khaled Sharrouf, was diagnosed as having chronic schizophrenia, delusions, and a long history of drug use.

This doesn’t fit the national security narrative particularly well: politicians and the media prefer to portray terrorism as binary — you’re either a terrorist or you’re not, you’re wilfully evil or you’re not. Recognising that mental illness may play a role in some circumstances where an individual embraces political or religious violence might — like recognising that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies” — disrupt the convenient notion that we are innocent, passive victims of irrational evil. It might encourage the idea that we are not targeted purely because of our Western values, but rather for what we do or fail to do — like failing to provide sufficient resources to ensure vulnerable, marginalised people can access effective mental health services.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW