Australia has a long history of mythologizing scoundrels and criminals. This national syndrome emerged in the 1870s, when a self-confessed murdering bushranger named Ned Kelly became a folk hero.
It was demonstrated again last month with the intense public and media outburst over the hanging of convicted heroin smuggler, Nguyen Tuong Van, in Singapore. After his body was returned to Melbourne more than 2,000 people, including politicians and celebrities, turned up to his funeral. Most had never met him. It is further witnessed by the media beatification of Australian convert-to-Islam and Taliban combatant David Hicks, who is portrayed by some as a persecuted victim of American atrocities while he awaits trial in Guantanamo Bay for war crimes.
Ned Kelly displayed two characteristics that enabled the Australian populace to morph him into folk hero status while simultaneously laying the foundations for a distinctive cultural identity based upon treating everyone, including crooks, far more sympathetically than they deserve.
First, the Kelly Gang carried out its crimes with the irreverence and black humor of a Hollywood movie script. In one raid on Jerilderie, in 1879, they broke into the local police station, stripped the constables of their uniforms, and locked them in their own cells. The gang then paraded around town in the uniforms claiming to be police reinforcements from Sydney. Eventually they rounded up the locals in the Royal Mail Hotel while two gang members slipped out in their police uniforms to rob the local bank of two thousand pounds.
Second, the illiterate Kelly dictated a long-winded excuse, known as the Jerilderie Letter, explaining how every crime he had ever committed had, in fact, been someone else’s fault. For the Irish Catholic convicts, the letter articulated their anger and frustration over what they believed to be their own harsh treatment at the hands of the police, the English, and the Irish Protestant squatters.
The immortalization of Ned Kelly as a hero is deeply ingrained in Australian culture, and the myth has been continually perpetuated since he was hanged in 1880, muttering, "Ah well I suppose it has come to this...Such is life."
Australians are prone to laughing things off, to minimizing tragedies and taking impractical risks while not taking anything too seriously. They love a battler and they barrack for the underdog in every situation. They’re renowned for seeing the best in the worst — and then making do with the worst of the best.
However, last week in Australia, Fairfax media, which owns the two largest newspapers in Melbourne and Sydney, recklessly embraced the Kelly syndrome when it portrayed ten Muslim terror suspects held in maximum security in the Barwon Prison, as misunderstood victims of the bullying West. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age said the men were in “solitary confinement, dressed in ‘Guantanamo Bay orange’ and banned from touching loved ones.”
Both newspapers made the error of misapplying an idiosyncratic Australian syndrome to adherents of Middle Eastern culture. Thus the Sydney Morning Herald published a story entitled “No Xmas joy for Vic terror suspects,” and The Age published: “Terror suspects: Christmas in solitary.” Both reported the alleged terrorists were near breaking point because the conditions were hard, and the Muslim men were not permitted to spend Christmas with their families.
And the stories quickly lapsed from the sublime to the ridiculous when the men’s lawyer, Rob Stary, was quoted implausibly describing the reverence felt for Christmas by these alleged followers of Osama bin Laden. “Although the men are Muslim,” he said, “spending this time of year in jail was nonetheless difficult as they see Christmas as a traditional time for celebration with family.”
The lawyer proceeded to further disgrace himself through a transparent gambit aimed at promoting more social unrest after the Cronulla race riots: “The Muslim community in Australia,” he opined, “would have a legitimate sense of grievance to see the way they’re treated.”
And yet, according to ABC commentator, Alison Caldwell, the prisoners each live in a separate room, with a private shower and tea and coffee-making facilities, as well as a personal television. They are permitted to leave their cells for three hours one day and six the next. The prison management believes the alleged terrorists should not mix with mainstream prisoners for their own safety.
In true Kelly style, neither of the newspapers clarified the prison conditions or acknowledged any sense of grievance the general population might feel towards the men who were arrested in anti-terrorism raids in November.
Two of the men, who have been refused bail, face charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, while the remaining eight, including outspoken cleric Abu Bakr, face secondary charges of financing a terrorist organization. According to Melbourne prosecutors, the two men, who applied for bail in December, had discussed killing Prime Minister John Howard and his family. One of the men, Abdullah Merhi, had sought religious guidance on when it was acceptable to kill innocent Australians, including children. He had also confided to the terrorist group’s ringleader that he now understood how infidels had control of Muslims all over the world. The court was informed that the men had undergone jihadist-style training in rural Australia and had discussed bomb making.
Abu Bakr, for his part, told the Australian public earlier this year that Osama bin Laden was a “great man” and said that he would be violating his religious beliefs if he discouraged his followers from traveling to Iraq to fight against the United States Army.
Simultaneous arrests occurred in Sydney where eight men were arrested for planning a terrorist attack on a major landmark. The Attorney General, Philip Ruddick, confirmed to the BBC that the men had stockpiled enough chemicals to make “a very large quantity of explosives.”
The police reported that several of these men had been stopped and questioned outside Australia’s only nuclear reactor, Lucas Heights near Sydney, where they had been acting suspiciously. Later, the police discovered a gate to the reactor had been cut.
TimesOnline reported that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr was electronically surveyed by police and was recorded exhorting his followers to “attack all those who opposed Sharia or Islamic law.”
Despite the catastrophic nature of these allegations, Australian Fairfax newspapers empathetically portrayed lawyer Stary’s support for his alleged terrorist clients by reporting: “It’s very soul-destroying for them.” “In two year’s time, he said, “they’ll be broken.”
And on December 16, in another bail hearing for the alleged terrorists, Sydney Magistrate Reg Marron informed the media he disapproved of the term “suicide bomber.” He was referring to one of the men’s stated impatience at having to wait to blow himself and innocent Australians up for Allah. The magistrate complained that it was an emotive term.
The forces of political correctness are working to censor honest reporting and open discussion on alleged terrorist activities in Australia. However, it is also essential to recognize the inherent dilemmas of reporting terrorism as if it were bushranger anecdote with all its intrinsic empathies and underdog loyalties
If the Australian media and its public report and interpret alleged terrorist activities by applying the Kelly Syndrome, then jihadist Islam is in for an easy time down under. And there is all the more reason to believe this will be the case when two of the country’s major newspapers are so eager to portray terrorists sympathetically that they fail to report sensibly. No informed person could believe that imprisoned Muslim terrorist suspects are honestly devastated because they are not permitted celebrate the birth of Jesus with their families.
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