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Embracing moral squeamishness

  • 15 November 2018


The recent knife and burning car attack in Melbourne was met appropriately with sympathy for the people who were killed and injured, outrage that such a terrible deed should be done in a peaceful city, relief that a potentially much larger death toll had been avoided and admiration for the police and for a homeless man who risked his own safety to tackle the offender with a trolley.

Politicians’ responses put the event into a larger perspective — the evil of the action, Prime Minister Morrison’s claim that the largest threat Australia faced came from extremist Muslim terrorism; Mr Dutton’s call for community leaders and family to report potential offenders; and Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy’s decrying of ‘moral squeamishness’. Being soft on crime and the deficiencies of the Muslim community were seen as the weak spots in the prevention of terrorism.

We can have sympathy for politicians who feel obliged to comment on terrifying events whose full shape is not clear. And they are clearly right that crimes associated with murderous religious beliefs are a challenge in Australia as in other nations. These crimes do need to be deplored, prevented, their victims mourned and their causes addressed.

But to be addressed they need to be understood in a broader context than the radicalisation of members of the Muslim community. Some crimes, no doubt, can be described in those simple terms.

However, when we consider murderous attacks on civilians in developed nations, including our own, a common theme is the combination of mental illnesses and strong paranoid convictions.

Like Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, the perpetrators are often isolated and angry. When their traces on social media are revealed after their crime, they often betray a rage against different racial, religious, family, political or gender groups, and a preoccupation with images of massive violence. The precise motivation and targets of their paranoia differ. Whether or not their crimes ought technically be described as ‘terrorism’ is incidental.


"The difficulty is that draconian treatment occurs only after people have committed crime. It does nothing to prevent the deaths they have caused."  

If this is so then prevention of these murderous attacks, whether mass shootings or other forms of killing, must have three elements. It must remove the means of mass killings, whether through gun control, installing bollards, monitoring social media sites that promote hatred and so on. It must also address the social forces that lead to alienation and to