National Security & Defense

For Whatshisname, the Dustbin of History

Flowers commemorate the victims of Monday’s attack in Sydney. (Daniel Munoz/Getty)

Two Australians who set off yesterday for a regular day of work are dead because they met in a coffee shop — one to sell coffee, one to buy it. They were in the coffee shop when an Islamist fanatic came in through the door, produced a gun, and took them and others hostage.

What were his motives? We are learning about them already, and we will learn more when the Australian police give a full account of their negotiations with him. Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, has described him as deeply weird and suggested that his life was full of contradictions. While that is so, he does not seem to have been randomly weird. As Tom Rogan points out, his actions during the crime and his website beforehand both show him to be a devotee of the brand of radical Islamism associated with the Islamic State. Forcing hostages to post Islamic State flags on the windows of the coffee shop was a fairly clear indication of his ideological bent.

At the same time, it seems likely that he had no very clear aim of what might be achieved as a result of his “siege.” His was a terrorist version of a “happening,” or what the Russian anarchists in the late 19th century called “the propaganda of the deed.” Capturing innocent people, menacing them, making them help with his propaganda, maybe trying to kill them (if that is what happened), and then perishing himself when the police intervened to stop what threatened to be a massacre — these were intended to excite the admiration of other Islamists and young men tempted by the Islamist ideology.

In a narrow sense he may have briefly succeeded. Throughout the Islamic world there are likely to be terror groupies sending tweets out to celebrate his name. Let us help them. His name is Herostratus: He burned down the Temple of Diana at Ephesus so that his name would live in history. And so it has — as the man who burned down a beautiful building for a stupid pointless reason. Herostratus is not remembered with admiration or with fondness but merely with shrugging contempt. And so it will be with Whatshisname. If he is remembered at all, it will be as a murderous crank and as an inspiration to other murderous cranks. And as we have learned since his sudden fame, almost everyone he ever met suffered from having known him: his ex-wife, current mistress, neighbors, the families of Australian servicemen who had died in action and to whom he wrote hate mail, the complete strangers he bullied from behind a gun for a few hours during the Christmas season.

Several commentators have pointed out that the significance of this particular brutal fool is that he was not part of any organized brutal foolery but a “lone wolf” or a more than usually sociopathic jackal. That should not persuade us to take him less seriously or to play down the meaning of his crimes. What it means, as we have long known (and denied) from earlier murders such as those at Fort Hood, is that countless other cranks — anonymously united only by their adherence to an Islamist ideology — are lurking in the shadows ready to emerge, plant bombs, shoot strangers, and generally make a cruel nuisance of themselves.

Whether they achieve more than that is up to us. If we respond sensibly and realistically to their crimes — see below — they will inspire fewer copycat terrorists with every failure. Unless their real aim is to send a thrill of pleasure through souls already drunk on hatred, they will not advance their cause, supposedly a Muslim caliphate, by one iota. If anything, they will delay it indefinitely. Australians yesterday — Christians, Jews, and Muslims — held joint prayer meetings for the hostages. Peaceful Muslims who would like to achieve greater unity within their faith, which is a more complicated task than within Christian ecumenism, are less likely to press strongly for this goal in the climate engendered by Islamist terrorism. The terrorists will score from time to time, but they will score “own goals” – if we are robust.

So the problem of the unifying Islamist ideology, however ultimately self-defeating, has to be countered. Three steps to achieve this have already been taken. Australia’s security services have been given the ample resources needed to defeat terrorism, which, the authorities tell us, they have done quietly and without fanfare on numerous other occasions. Have we given them enough? No, and we never will. As Abbott has promised, the Australian security should now look closely at why they failed to put such an obvious villain on their watch list. But know the answer: When the potential challenges are so numerous, not all can be tracked and closed down. Changes in the law will probably be required alongside resources. That said, we should not let the occasional lone jackal who slips through the net make us forget those successes.

Second, the pool of murderous cranks in Australia has been reduced by immigration control. Australia’s legal immigration system is generous and un-discriminatory. Until recently, however, it did not fully control immigration because “the boats” of illegal immigrants kept coming. Against all expectations, however, the Abbott government has now stopped the boats. That will make it easier to ensure that extremists don’t slip unnoticed into the country — perhaps supplemented in the future by legal changes that make residence and citizenship dependent upon a clear commitment to Australia’s democratic ethos and constitution.

Some murderous cranks, however, are home-grown. An unknown number of Australian citizens have joined the American and British members of the Islamic State. So a third element in policy must be the promotion of a democratic, inclusive Australian identity. That is made easier by the fact that the existing Aussie identity is already inclusive and democratic, and — under Tony Abbott as under John Howard — self-confident and unapologetic, too. As in other countries, however, national pride has been hobbled by the exaggerated nervousness of multiculturalism and political correctness. Media, educational institutions, government agencies, and local government must now set aside political correctness and point out forcefully that this democratic identity is incompatible with radical Islamism. If young and new Australians are proud of a bold national identity, them they will be that much less tempted by the violent sophistries of extremism.

Above all, however, radical Islamism needs to lose and be seen to lose, as we argued above. Its adherents today will weep no tears over the two innocent lives lost. But they will register nervously that Australia refused to give in to blackmail and that Whatsisname ended up dead on the floor. If every hostage-taking and siege ends in more or less the same way, the ideologically tempted will gradually lose heart, look for other methods to advance their ideology, and eventually drift off into a disappointed and ashamed middle age. They will even forget Herostratus (who, after all, is today remembered mainly by classical scholars).

May we express our condolences to the families of the two innocent people who died. Their names are Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson. Rest in peace.

Our condolences also to the 72 virgins in paradise. We doubt he will be much use to you. He was no use to anyone on earth.

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