Last Friday’s car rampage in the Bourke Street Mall was labelled as a terror-inspired attack almost before it was over. Herald Sun crime reporter Andrea Hamblin uploaded a video of a clearly shocked and nervous bystander saying the man driving the vehicle that killed five people and injured more than 35 had shouted “Allahu Akbar” several times. The driver of the vehicle was described as “of Middle Eastern appearance”. Even though the Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle all quickly issued statements that the incident was not terror-related, the report quickly spread and was widely distributed on social media. The Herald Sun quickly pulled the video down at the request of police, as the reporter later said. 

One person who quickly jumped on this news to make a political point of this misinformation was One Nation leader Pauline Hanson. As she was speaking to the media in Western Australia, staffer James Ashby whispered the news in her ear as she was being filmed. What quickly followed was a statement along the lines of we can’t have these people in our country. It was in line with the anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric she has adopted in her latest incarnation as a senator, and without checking or knowing any of the facts of what happened in Melbourne she went on to falsely claim that “all terror attacks in Australia had been carried out by Muslims”.

When one reporter pointed out that was not true and mentioned the neo-Nazi attacks carried out by Jack van Tongeren, Hanson said she simply wasn’t aware of that case.

The incident was quickly buried with the ongoing reporting of the dead and injured in Melbourne and the details of the attacker were revealed. Although it did become the subject of news reports discrediting the original assertion that what had happened in Melbourne was a terrorist attack.

This isn’t the first or the last time the violent actions of a disturbed, drug-affected or mentally ill individual has been or will be attributed to Islamic terrorism. The immediate reaction by Hanson to link terrorism, immigration and the demonisation of Muslims together following a random violent act for political point scoring is an extension of what has been happening in Australian politics and some sections of the media for years.

Contrast this with say the recent shootings at the airport in Fort Lauderdale in Florida and how that was reported. There, a former US soldier who had been receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder after multiple tours to Iraq opened fire on people waiting at a baggage carousel. He had actually gone to the FBI beforehand and told them the CIA had forced him to watch Islamic State videos and that he was hearing voices. Probably because he was a former soldier, the FBI dismissed him as a bit of a crank and let him leave, with his weapon. Not much has been written about that case since. He went on a shooting spree that killed five and wounded more than 30 people, but it has received little attention. 

But the point is the default position of many media outlets and some politicians to instantly label any violent incident as inspired by “Islamic Terrorism” has some knock-on effects in the community. Take this one from Sydney the other day. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, a Muslim woman had just finished an exam for her medical science degree and got into her car. A woman confronted her through the windscreen and yelled: “Who are you? Why you got a mask? Terrorist. You got a gun?”

Islamic State put this message out in 2014:

“Strike their police, security, and intelligence members, as well as their treacherous agents. Destroy their beds. Embitter their lives for them and busy them with themselves. If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war …”

That statement has been endlessly repeated by agenda driven websites like this.

ISIS propagandists were smart in putting out that statement; it meant they could claim any violent act, by anybody, as their work. Which is why they did it. 

Friday’s events in Melbourne showed how quickly the police and the government had to move to hose down terrorism speculation in the media. It was about to get out of hand, and with Hanson’s clumsy comments and the work of right-wing bloggers, it almost did. And what good would that have done? More bashings, more abuse in the street and on public transport and more disaffected and marginalised Muslims.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW