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Embracing moral squeamishness



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.

Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy in Burke Street (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

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 the targeting of particular groups. Most important, it must help persons who are at risk of mental illnesses to find effective support that will help them deal with their mental health and help them to make connections with society.

It is also counterproductive to address the threat by more intrusive policing of potential suspects. Given that so many perpetrators of mass killings are either not known to police or are not considered as dangerous, preventative detention or programs of deradicalisation will not exclude such crimes. They may helpful in cases where the perpetrators’ planning and motivation are rational, but not where people are driven by delusion and passion.

Compulsory programs of re-education elsewhere seem to have been singularly ineffective for individuals. They will also intensify feelings of alienation and fear in the communities from which suspects are plucked.

If moral squeamishness implies resistance to zero tolerance, harsh punishment and disregard of the personal and social background of the offenders, its renunciation may also be counterproductive. The difficulty is that draconian treatment occurs only after people have committed crime. It does nothing to prevent the deaths they have caused. It may deter others who take into account the consequences for themselves of their actions.

But most mass murderers do not seem to do this. If they are ideologically driven, they may have discounted even their own deaths. If they are driven by a mixture of social factors, paranoid ideas and mental illness, the threat of harsh punishment is equally unlikely to deter them.

What might be effective is to strengthen support within their own and the wider community in order to help vulnerable people understand themselves and the feelings that might drive them to paranoid ideas and violent action if left unattended. If that is moral squeamishness, it at least offers some hope of effectiveness.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Main image: Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy in Burke Street (Darrian Traynor/Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Bourke street attack



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Existing comments

As I read the article I thought "The paradox of prevention is that nothing happens". For those politicians who need to be seen to be "doing something", providing resources to prevent such tragedies must be very difficult: seemingly there's nothing to show for the expenditure needed to achieve positive social outcomes. How can preventative outcomes be justified? There needs to be more emphasis in the triple bottom line, not merely viewing such matters from the cost perspective. The old saying "There is more than one way to skin a cat" still has relevance in such situations.

Paddy Byers | 15 November 2018  

Thank you Andrew for your reflection on this sad case. Unfortunately once again the politicians latched onto the Muslim/ terrorism mantra to explain the horrific actions of this man . From what we have learnt he was not living the tenants of his faith in that he was a user of drugs and was not practising .Sadly he had a mental illness which most likely led to his actions. The treatment of people with mental Illnesses seems to have a very low priority in our society .This needs to be urgently addressed. Blaming a ethnic group or requesting religious leaders to curb religious extremists is missing the point. We need to ask why are these people falling between the cracks? How can we deal with their alienation from society? Only then will we go someway to preventing these terrible events.

Gavin O'Brien | 15 November 2018  

It's complicated. A security assessment of the risk an individual or an organisation poses to national security is the result of three activities : the collection by all available means of relevant information; analysing that information as to reliability , credibility & timeliness; evaluating to what extent the subject(s) have the capacity, the opportuniy & a genuine willingness to carry out their scheming. Then the judgment has to be made - what action has to be taken? Will it be a pre-emptive strike? Through to a watching brief? Always with the proviso that an impulsive or lone wolf action might happen. But as Andrew points out when politicians enter the process their desire to be seen to be doing something is not always compatible with an objective dispassionate assessment of the incident or of the perpetrator(s).

Uncle Pat | 15 November 2018  

The deaths of a few people at the hands of "terrorists" attracts huge attention and discussion. The deaths of more than 50 women a year at the hands of ex-partners seems to be met with a shrug.

Lenore Crocker | 15 November 2018  

One of the most insightful and pertinent public comments on this recent event by anyone. A young Muslim security guard called Shady was injured whilst attempting to stop Shire Ali. We are all in this together. ISIS and its supporters want to drive a wedge between people in our community and make our country ungovernable. They will not succeed but I think there are many things which we can do to try and prevent incidents of this sort. I agree with you that most deradicalization programs are a failure. Many individuals, whether mentally ill or just lonely and alienated, are recruited on the internet. Some sort of counter action here, pointing out the follies of ISIS and its ways, is indicated. This will need to be specifically targeted and reasonably resourced. Youth Centres where alienated young people can go without being exposed to potentially dangerous ideologies would also be a great help. Victoria Police do some very good work in this area of outreach to alienated Muslim youth.Their response in Bourke St was timely and attempted to save lives. What is under threat is a tolerant and cosmopolitan society. No man or woman is an island here.

Edward Fido | 15 November 2018  

A very good analysis of a highly complex set of problems. The recent Melbourne crimes of actual or attempted mass murder overlap but the differences in the underlying issues are so substantial that they do indeed need separating. In at least two cases, paranoid schizophrenia, or something like it, seems to have been evident, and in both of these chronic "recreational" drug abuse seems to have been a causal factor. Society should remind itself that drug taking, including regular cannabis and also nicotine, especially in persons under 25 years of age, is highly dangerous to brain and mental health. Social policies need to reflect that, and pressure to relax laws in this area needs to resisted (indeed quite the opposite!). A second and different cause of Melbourne violence is terrorism related to Wahabbist Islamist extremism; however we do it, this needs to be weeded out (whatever it takes!). Finally, there are the rampaging young men of African origins where trauma from civil war and refugee camp experiences etc are likely to be factors. This seems to be a lesser problem than the media has led us believe and I would support giving them some slack to see if they can be helped to grow up!

Eugene | 15 November 2018  

Well said, Andy; as well as everyone else on this page, especially Paddy Byers! This is a crime that some politicians have been waiting to happen. How else, apart from this kind of horrible set-up - a 'terrorist incident' that was entirely predictable in terms of explanations splattered across this page - might the powers that be persist in demonising Muslims?

Michael Furtado | 16 November 2018  

But Michael, there is one (small) group of Muslims in Australia that does need to be "demonised". The 500 or so radicalised, extreme, potential violent terrorist Wahabbists need to be "got rid of" from society, either by preventive internment-detention (as in northern Ireland for the paramilitaries during the Troubles) or preferably and more cleanly and cheaply, deported.

Eugene | 19 November 2018  

But Eugene, you argue against yourself, in your first post, in wishing to intern (as in N. Ireland) a man who was plainly deranged in taking on armed policepersons with a knife. As it happens, the entire punitive paraphernalia of direct rule by Westminster, its suspension of the N. Irish parliament, and the use and abuse of 'special powers' did not work until the real causes of gerrymandering and exclusion were corrected. Meantime, hundreds were interned and some of them (e.g. The Birmingham Five) falsely accused of murder. We have, in effect, created a Muslim martyr, instead of treating him like the deranged person that he was.

Dr Michael FURTADO | 19 November 2018  

After 23 years on the Board of a NFP Mental Health Service (unpaid) I am deeply concerned that these young men are all 'loner's with family problems. Their odd behaviours are known by everyone around them and yet no one seems concerned enough to get support for them from the Mental Health Services when they are plainly ill. I wonder if their association to terrorism is not a manifestation on their primary problem - they are sick!

Jennifer Raper OAM | 23 November 2018  

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