Disclaimer: This piece was written before Sam Dastyari’s Chinese links were brought to light and doesn’t seek to condone his actions.
On 8 November 2017, then-senator Sam Dastyari was harassed in a local pub. The verbal abuse went for just under four minutes and was caught on video, showing that even after moving away the perpetrators followed Dastyari and continued to vilify him. They called him a “terrorist” and a “little monkey”.
This incident happened in Melbourne, one of the world’s multicultural hubs and a city voted the world’s most liveable for the last seven years. So, why did these men say what they did?
It can be assumed that they didn’t believe what they were saying. Obviously, Dastyari is a human, not another member of the primate family. You’d also hope that if these people thought they were in the presence of an actual terrorist they would call the National Security Hotline or the police, rather than wasting time flinging racial slurs. It’s the history and meaning behind this language which causes the pain. It isn’t saying that they really believe that Dastyari has extreme political beliefs and is willing to commit violent acts to enforce them. It’s saying that he looks like the people who do. This presents the major issue.
The portrayal of terrorism has a nasty racial undertone which is bleeding into our society. This is confirmed with each breaking news report. Whether it is a bomb explosion, a volley of gunfire into a crowd, or a truck through pedestrians. If in the news report, the alleged perpetrator is white they’re simply mentally ill. They’re considered sick or they had a rough childhood and need help. If they’re not white, they’re labelled a terrorist.
Before we go further into this, we must look at why everything isn’t a terrorist attack. For example, mass shootings and serial killing sprees aren’t terrorist attacks on their own. Despite popular belief a terrorist act isn’t just an act which causes terror. While the definition is still debated within academic circles the core part of terrorism is that there is a political motivation. The act has to be done to forward a political agenda. In causing terror, injuries, and deaths the perpetrator is attempting to hold the authorities at ransom. It sends a message that these attacks won’t stop until the government gives in to the terrorist’s demands. It is worthwhile to note that these demands are almost always based on removing an intervening military from someone’s homeland, but that’s a separate issue.
The acts of terror are a means to an end, not a final goal. This is what makes democracies such easy targets. In a democracy, protecting citizens is a priority and any terrorist act within a democratic nation-state’s borders is met with outrage and confusion. A safety bubble is burst and the deaths are seen to be more horrifying than those you could witness happening in another country through your TV. By taking these ideas into account it can be followed that the authorities, media, or anyone else cannot name something as an act of terror until they understand the motives behind it. This however, doesn’t stop people from doing so.
A lot of things are to blame for this. Western media has a huge role to play, choosing to emphasise religious or cultural signifiers which are usually tied to skin colour. Using violent imagery from the Middle East or Asia, solidifying the idea that white people aren’t terrorists. This is fortified by what viewers watch. If a politician is talking about what they’re going to do about ISIS everyone’s listening. If they want to talk about Breivik from the 2011 Norway massacre it hits too close to home. Terrorist acts are so violent and destructive that anything tied to it has to be forced into an ‘other’ category. Viewers believe they must be someone who doesn’t sound, look, or speak like ‘us’ because ‘we’ wouldn’t act that way. When people of colour feature on the news, it is almost never positive. When that representation of a huge amount of people is so narrow but done with no room for second guessing, the concepts of generalisation and stereotyping come into play.
Western media has a huge role to play.
Clearly, this is disgraceful and speaks more to the internal uncertainty of our own character than the character of anyone else. But it means in a pub somewhere in Melbourne, an individual of foreign descent gets shouted down and labelled a terrorist. An act done to hurt, unsettle and, isolate anyone who appears different.
This was allowed and encouraged to happen due to the societal lens of identity dislocation. The overarching thought of “who am I? Well, I’m certainly not them” has become all some people can see. The racial bias within terrorism studies and the coverage of it in media spreads a dangerous message which will only enforce the ideas that certain people aren’t welcome in our community. We must make it clear that those who are willing to tear down others, cast them aside, and sequester them into a box in their minds are wrong. This will also reinforce to those who are extremist that their views aren’t correct, and we don’t want them in our society. I’m not saying that terrorists are following ABC News and are going to take a vulgar comment from a drunk prat as ammunition, but it certainly doesn’t convince them their extremist vision creates more harm than ours.
So, what can be done to stop it?
That’s a tough one.
Talking is what got us into this mess, talking can help get us out. Realising the bias which is skewing the media, recognising the lines which no society should cross, and knowing that everyone is human is a decent start.
Calling people out on their actions is another way of approaching this. I especially appreciated MP Tim Watts’ reaction. He was in the pub with his then-colleague Dastyari that evening. The offenders had asked Dastyari “what race” Muslims identify with? Mr Watts asked them “What race is a dickhead?”.
It is the responsibility of the government, the media, and other authoritative bodies to make these crucial changes. The racial bias within terrorism is an international, regional, domestic, and local issue. It spreads from the Parliament, to news anchor scripts, and then to our family Christmas dinner tables. It isn’t going away. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try or that we won’t win.