Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sydney siege: The danger of the stories behind our national grief

Our national grief over the deadly siege at Sydney's Martin Place is undeniably shared by prime minister Tony Abbott and his wife Margie. Yet our collective sorrow over the deaths of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson does not depend for its legitimacy or depth of feeling on our acceptance of the prime minister's broader perspective on the tragedy, which as a nation we must reject.

David Marr and Richard Ackland writing in The Guardian have already named the risk of further eroding our freedoms in reaction to the event, and we should indeed challenge any claim that a similar tragedy would be averted by assembling a yet more terrifying machinery of armed force and state security than the one that failed to stop Man Haron Monis before he killed.

Driving such inevitable calls, however, is a deeper current signalled by a Twitter hashtag - #illridewithyou - at once hopeful but foreshadowing that it may not suffice for the grief of Australia's Muslims to be no more than the shared grief of all ordinary, decent Australians.

There is the sense that the grief of Muslims, their condemnation, must be greater for the false and undeserved blame they carry, especially if they originally came to Australia seeking asylum.

That Monis was granted political asylum in 2001 may fuel this blame, but it is there already in the prime minister's story of a pervasive and enshrouding Islamic State 'death cult', of Team Australia, in the mantra of turning back the boats, and in the grudging selection or rejection of those hoping to come aboard the lifeboat of a safe and prosperous nation.

It is there in the offshore torture of those who seek entry outside the cruel sanction of an inhuman immigration system.

Now, in his latest comments, the prime minister has questioned how Monis came to possess a pump-action shotgun. A valid question, but the prime minister has also challenged how Monis was able to enter Australia, and how he managed to access welfare – two questions through which a broader political agenda is now surfacing in the aftermath of this tragedy.

The fearful lifeboat of our nation already bears many passengers attuned to Abbott’s story. There are those who have made no hazardous journey across oceans, but are suffering through disadvantage made worse by Coalition policies.

There are others who, though wealthy and protected - in a place where children will never be slaughtered by the Taliban - fear they may suffer if too many hands reach up from the water, or if we should happen to mistakenly admit a 'madman'.

There is a blindness in this, too, that the horrific events of Cairns, and of so many tragedies of violence - particularly against women and children - arise from the conditions and attitudes within our own society.

Last week, I had a chance conversation in a pub with a person who told me she received the disability support pension following the diagnosis of a chronic illness - a mother of three, one of Joe Hockey's defamed 'leaners' of the Australian economy.

Her hatred of refugees living in a public housing estate was the place where reason vanished and fear began. They were given so much, she said. They committed crimes, the prevalence of which could not be substantiated because so many went unreported. Refugees, for her, had come to wrongly personify the risk and contingency so many of us feel in an increasingly unequal and vulnerable society.

Her story was an echo of the story told by Tony Abbott, a consequence of deeply divisive, unfair and inhuman policies stoking panic on the lifeboat itself - a story that doesn't say 'I'll ride with you', but cries instead, 'You won't ride with us'.

Let's hope the former and more human sentiment survives beyond an ephemeral trend on social media.

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