Flinders Street attack: Media and Twits pull the terrorism trigger

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Flinders Street Station (Image by Donaldytong via Wikimedia Commons)

It didn't take long for people to conclude the car being driver into pedestrians on Flinders Street yesterday was driven by terrorism, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

It is one of Melbourne's busiest intersections, located outside Flinders Street Station and Elizabeth Street. The street features in iconic – and distinctly finite – terms, in Stanley Kramer’s 1959 adaptation of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a reminder then that Melbourne, despite its size, could do ghost towns and vanishing residents better than most on weekends. 

“On the Beach is a story about the end of the world,” the smouldering, pouty starlet Ava Gardner is supposed to have said, “and Melbourne is sure the right place to film it!” In 2017, however, amidst the din of trams, cars and squawking pedestrian lights, there is no hint of sleepiness. A cosmopolitan city readies for the festive citizen.

This readiness was suspended in a moment of instant terror when a white Suzuki SUV made its dramatic appearance on Thursday at 4.40 pm, proceeding towards the intersection without showing any inclination of stopping, motoring at 70 km/h. The 32-year-old driver was duly arrested by a person who turned out to be an off-duty policy officer. Nineteen people were duly admitted to hospital, four in a critical condition.

Questions started forming. What of the person’s descent, background, motivation? One officer initially suggested that it might be an act of no-frills terrorism. More modest accounts, shot through with care, were subsequently developed.

“We believe, based on what we’ve seen,” came the assessment by Victoria Police Commander Russell Barrett, “it is a deliberate act.” Commendably, he injected a note of caution: “It is too early in the investigation to discuss motivation.”

It took several hours for an even more sober assessment to be made, but the initial note of reserve paid off. Yes, the act might well have been deliberate, but Acting Victorian Police Commissioner Shane Patton would assure those at a media conference late on Thursday night that there was imply no evidence to link the gruesome acts with those of terrorism.

The person in question, rather, was an Australian citizen of Afghan descent with a lengthy history of mental instability and drug use. He was also on the books as receiving treatment for his mental illness and known police for previous assault offences.

Eager shock jocks and populists were searching for those signifiers that would point to an enthusiastic jihadi who had snuck in under the radar of diligent immigration officials. They were only given crumbs. 

As Acting Commissioner Patton explained to ABC News Breakfast:

“He spoke of dreams and voices, but also attributed some of his activities as well due to the mistreatment of Muslims.” 

Patton was also content after reviewing the footage “that [the person] driving the car” did so “without anyone else present at all”. The note was important for scotching swirling stories of more participants, waiting in the wings to strike. One centred on a 24-year-old man spotted filming the macabre scene. On being arrested, he was found to be in possession of a bag with knives. On first blush, there was no evident link between the two.

The social media space has always been a place of emancipated hatred, and now it was used to deride and denigrate the nature of mental illness while questioning labels. Religion (well, a certain sort of religion) did it! It came with a beard, with backpacks, with knives. Participants were blurred, evidence mashed, scotched, dispensed with.Miranda Devine of The Daily Telegraph, for instance, insinuated that she knew the answers by retweeting a link to CNN on 'Terrorist Attacks by Vehicle Fast Facts'.

Pop reactionary Andrew Bolt, never one to wear the crown of circumspection comfortably, happily dove into the pool of speculation. On the one hand, the Victorian State Government had filled Melbourne with 'stones of stupidity'. On the other, 'our reckless immigration and refugee policies may well have played a role here' though he did clip his enthusiasm slightly by admitting 'we do not yet know the identity of the people in the car'.

In a gleeful update to his piece, Bolt would write:

'Sure enough, the 32-year old driver was an Australian citizen of Afghan descent, yet police say only that he has a history of drug use and mental illness and there is no known terrorism link.'

Twitter twits agreed that the Victorian police were somehow taking to the drink of appeasement. 

Rightwing fascist Blair Cottrell took note of the Afghan Muslim who drove a car into the people on Flinders Street, with a second Muslim filming 'while carrying a backpack full of knives'

What did the police, politicians and members of the media claim, said Cottrell: 'Drugs and mental illness is to blame!'

'Shut his mosque', declared Trump fan Peter Doyle. 'Lock up his family.  Burn down his house. And then stuff so much bacon down his throat that he chokes to death. That would mark the last Islamic jihad attack ever seen in Melbourne.'

British nationalist Tommy Robinson issued a lamentation on the nature of the Islamic threat; it had gotten wings and found its way to Australia, destroying fantasies, trashing dreams:

Such acts of easily inflicted harm do much to stimulate incoherence and insensibility. The modern city space is a happy hunting ground for those seeking to inflict damage. Bollards and camouflaged blocks provide only limited protection, heavy placebos.

The SUV, a vehicle that blends rather than stands out, finding its way to a busy point of converging traffic and people.

For all that the initiative of those present at the scene and, truth be told, the less than able way the driver undertook his mission, kept casualties down. But the seeds of potential pre-Christmas hysteria, resistant to analysis, have been sown.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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