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.
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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 time.
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.