I might tentatively suggest that a “normal” human reaction to the news that Australian woman Justine Damond had been shot dead by a Minneapolis police officer would have been something like shock, empathy and helpless despair. As the revelations quickly unfolded — she had called the police, she was in pyjamas, the shooter’s name was Mohammed Noor, he was Somali-American — understandable confusion would likely emerge.
Then life would go on, as it does in the face of the incomprehensible. At least, as it used to, before these times of hyper-categorisation, where everything said or done is no longer allowed to be simply awful but must be instantly co-opted as proof. Of something.
For Miranda Devine, there is apparently no time to waste on sentimentalities such as acknowledging that a person is tragically dead. As with her immediate reaction to the laying of sexual assault charges against Cardinal George Pell — to accuse the Victorian Police Commissioner of trumping up the charges to distract attention from a crime wave she insists is being perpetrated by (surprise!) young black men — Devine launched straight into explaining Why This Event Proves My Point.
The logic is certainly peculiar, but here’s her summary: “A black cop killing an unarmed white woman does not fit the narrative pushed by Black Lives Matter activists. But they may as well have pulled the trigger.”
I guess it is obvious when you put it that way. You see, the Black Lives Matter movement, with its unwarranted objections to the shooting of unarmed black men by white cops, has achieved nothing other than making the police nervous and, therefore, more likely to shoot innocent people. “And now an Australian has fallen victim.”
Well, yes, I do understand that Miranda is programmed to outrage; that is her shtick. However, she is also one of the most popular columnists in the most-read newspaper in Sydney. Her narrative preferences aren’t some quaintly racist personal peccadillo; she reflects a widely held, if narrowly understood explanation of this disordered world. She and her like can’t really be ignored.
The events in Minneapolis are impossibly unclear. Damond was an incredibly unlucky, entirely innocent victim of an inexplicable act of lethal violence. Nothing about her presence or (as far as we know) actions sheds any light. Maybe fireworks spooked the officer, it’s being suggested.
US police shoot people all the time; The Washington Post says 547 have been killed so far this year (Damond was number 541). Statistically, given US gun laws, the sheer volume of weaponry and the overall rates of gun violence, the cops aren’t drastically out of step in this regard. But, disproportionately, the shooter is white and the victim is black.
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This shooter was black, Muslim and born in Somalia. He was reportedly the first Somali-American to become a police officer. On what’s been disclosed so far — he fired from the passenger seat of the police cruiser at Damond while she was talking to his partner — it sounds very bad. There is talk of murder charges. Nothing about this story makes much sense.
One way of reacting to this, whether you are a journalist, politician or citizen, would be to reserve judgement and live with the confusion while the story properly unfolds. Alternatively, you can jump all over it with your own version of “See? Exactly!!”
It reminds me of what happened in the aftermath of the shooting deaths of 49 people and wounding of 58 others in an Orlando gay nightclub in 2016. The killer was Omar Mateen, born in the US, Muslim, of Afghan heritage.
Mateen’s motivation was beyond understanding. His act was, however, immediately labelled one of Islamist terrorism and an “assault on freedom” by US politicians and our own Prime Minister. Donald Trump instantly tweeted “appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism”. With the benefit of eight months’ reflection, Devine, in a column earlier this year, dismissed the “concerted attempt to portray the attack as a homophobic hate crime rather than a radical Islamic terrorist attack” as an example of “political correctness”.
At one level, all this desperate rush to pin the act, motive and agent with instant and recognisable labels is simply the age-old pursuit of confirmation bias: the selective attachment of events and identities to provide evidence for whatever narrative view you have already decided you prefer. It’s just been hyped up by the immediacy and endlessness of the modern digital media cycle, leaving even less time for pause and reflection before rushing to judge.
For the relics of the left v right ideological wars, confirmation bias is everything. They’re not arguing over anything real anymore, so the fight is just an unending round of counter-punches as each side uses whatever happens in the world to “prove” that the other’s narrative is untenable. It’s kind of impressive, sometimes, to observe how hard they work to dredge support for their worldview from random events.
There is a deeper intent, however. Think back to the Lindt Cafe. In the early days, it wasn’t clear whether that was a terrorist act. The perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, put up an Islamic flag (not an Islamic State flag, although he did repeatedly demand one) and there were grounds for characterising his crime as having a terrorist intent. There was, however, no strong consensus on what it all meant. Over time, however, the loudest and most consistent categorisation of Lindt has been as one of Australia’s few genuine incidents of terrorism, and I’d say that that’s where it’s now going to stay.
Whether or not that’s right or fair, the point is that repetition is rewarded. For some in society, particularly in the media and politics, labelling holds high value. Messy ambiguity does not. For Devine, Orlando is most usefully categorised as a high body count Islamic terror act. It is unhelpful to her preferences to allow any room for homophobia, mental illness or any other cause.
Likewise, it is important to start the process of classification of the Minneapolis shooting as early as possible. This begins with denial of what one prefers it not be: just another unnecessary police shooting, or another example of the increasingly random deadly consequences of the collapse of American society. That’s followed by attachment of this event to what one wants to be true: that Black Lives Matter is a dangerously fraudulent excess of the political correctness plague.
Devine has another, more subtle, narrative to pursue: that the biggest threat to civil society is, in fact, black. As she asserts: “America’s first black president Barack Obama, was complicit. He and his black attorneys-general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch and the rest of the American left, encouraged the backlash against police.” Fade to … black.
Meanwhile, Justine Damond is dead. She gets no say in the uses to which her tragic passing is put.