Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl (Episode 3): Race to Terror

By Mohamad Tabbaa
Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl

TV review by Mohamad Tabbaa

Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl | SBS

How does history inform our present?

Episode three of the SBS documentary Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl shines a glaring light onto this question as it carefully steps into the world of terrorism and the Cronulla Riots.

This episode traces the painful experiences of the first Australian to be charged with terrorism, Zaky Mallah. As it recounts his difficult life, having lost both his parents at an early age, one cannot but help to feel sorry for his sad tale of loneliness and helplessness. He characterises his own turn to extremism as “a cry for help”. And it is at this point where the documentary invites the viewer to make the dangerous and simplistic leap from having these feelings of despair to developing a fully-fledged commitment to political violence.

 … there is little more frustrating than the discourse of ‘radicalisation’, often dismissive of the role of politics, or at best rendering it a secondary factor.

It is difficult not to be intrigued by the topic of terrorism. What leads a person to blow themselves and others up in the name of a cause which they, by design, will never live to see? Much of my university life is spent engaging this topic, both by learning and teaching. There are many different theories as to why people employ tactics of terrorism, and perhaps the only consistent thread running through them is the close relationship between terrorism and politics.

For this reason, there is little more frustrating than the discourse of ‘radicalisation’, often dismissive of the role of politics, or at best rendering it a secondary factor. It counter-productively pursues the patholigisation of individual actors to explain political violence; a decontextualisation that inevitably leads to false conclusions. This same tired discourse is unfortunately regurgitated in episode three.

This fraught approach produces more questions than answers, and seems to conveniently ignore well-established facts about terrorism that, as I’ve co-written elsewhere, render such a framing unworkable. The largest study of terrorists ever undertaken, for example, concluded that “no common psychological characteristics exist between terrorists, and that no personality disorders are evident”. A cursory glance at terrorist profiles quickly reveals this discrepancy, ranging as they are from the poorly educated, despairing youngster, to the extremely privileged, charismatic elder; from Zaky Mallah to Osama bin Laden.

Nonetheless this approach raises even more basic questions. With depression and mental illness rife in Australian society, why do we not witness young non-Muslims engage in the same form (or aspiration) of political violence? Or, to ask it in reverse, why did Mallah’s turbulent personal situation push him towards this particular expression of political activism, and not, say, anarchism, drugs, sadomasochism, heck, even dancing?

Needless to say, the decontextualisation and depoliticisation evident in Mallah’s story, and its reduction of terrorism to a cry for help is not only misleading but ultimately unhelpful in understanding and tackling the issue of terrorism.

There was an even more frustrating, and I believe entirely irresponsible, framing of violence employed in the documentary, namely the idea that terror and violence had penetrated Australia on September 11, and then well and truly entered its heart as a result of the Bali bombings.

Sociologist Andrew Jakubowicz states it perfectly: “The Bali Bombings bring that whole global violence home to Australians.” The frightening aspect of this statement is that it is both true and false at the same time. Without a doubt the terror attacks were interpreted as the introduction of violence writ large onto Australia’s shores. The problem of course is that this is an intense whitewashing of both history and the present.

Perhaps this version holds true for parts of White Australia. For almost everybody else, violence has been a normal part of life since the formation of this nation ‘girt by sea’. Violence did not first intrude into the lives of Indigenous people in the early 2000s, nearly destroying an ancient people and erasing their traditional modes of living and community. Likewise, violence did not begin with the Bali attacks for Lebanese communities, as the documentary aptly illustrates. 2002 was not the first time migrants felt the force of global violence, as they are forced to deal with the realities of dead relatives back home, poverty or exploitation.

Global violence, far from being missing in action until these recent attacks, well and truly arrived onto the shores of this southern land with colonisation and attempted genocide. Global violence shows itself in the racism meted out to wave upon wave of migrants on a continuous basis. Global violence finds expression in the inherent inequality of global order, whereby the prosperity of Australia is directly linked to the exploitation of third world countries. Global violence is the demolishing of borders to ensure the free flow of capital, and the erecting of borders to prevent the free flow of people. Violence is the name of Australia itself.

The reality of global violence is denied when we ask Muslims why they’re angry at events occurring on the other side of the world, and why they “import overseas grudges”, but then conveniently evoked after terrorist attacks to justify the expansion of state power.

Violence against non-whites, on the other hand, is unfortunate. It is an aberration, a result of poor judgement. It is regrettable, a “part of the process, unfortunately”

This whitewashing of history and the present implicitly suggests that only certain victims are worthy and owed a semblance of recognition and assistance. Violence against whites is violence proper, true violence. It galvanises a systemic and collective response. It must be dealt with by any means necessary, even trumping the rule of law and human rights. Its victims should be compensated. Their stories should be shown endlessly on our screens. Their names should be known and their dreams shared. Laws must be named after them and policies enacted to protect them. We must ‘never forget’ what happened to these victims. These victims show us why we need to be forever vigilant and always on guard in the face of evil: alert, not alarmed.

Violence against non-whites, on the other hand, is unfortunate. It is an aberration, a result of poor judgement. It is regrettable, a “part of the process, unfortunately”. It should not be dwelled upon; “stop playing victim”. This “isolated incident”, even when carried out consistently over generations, should not blackmail us into changing our way of life. Laws and policies should be protected against the encroachment of such victimhood complexes. Violence against non-whites, as in the documentary, can be blamed on drunkenness, which, importantly, removes any evil intent. In short, get over it.

What better place to locate this victim hierarchy than in terrorist attacks themselves? Victims on our doorstep, in Bali, for example, are overlooked (as impediments in our way) as we rush to intervene for the ‘real’ victims. During coverage of the Bali attacks, we are constantly reminded not of the number of dead people, but specifically of dead Australians. Eighty-eight. Who can forget that number? The others are peripheral, collateral. They are the unfortunate excesses of the real deaths on that day, the deaths that matter.

Similarly, the framing of the asylum seeker (as a) problem serves to further illustrate this point. Victimhood is shifted from those fleeing persecution, war, torture and poverty, onto us; poor us who are terrorised by the frightening presence of brown people in a leaky boat. It is us who are being targeted by these foreign invaders. Time to erect some new borders, excise mainland Australia from the Migration Zone and buy some drones, just in case.

This is the poisonous fruit of a long-entrenched racism. It positions all things non-white as perpetual outsiders, excluded and suspect, to be managed and controlled lest they spoil the pure essence of this whiteness. Little surprise then that a short while later this violent ideology would physically burst onto the beaches of Cronulla, eager to defend this purity from those foreigners posing as locals.

The Cronulla riots have been described as “the day that shocked the nation”. We should hardly be shocked. In the same way that the documentary projected the entry of violence onto terrorist attacks, so too these rioters projected the importation of violence onto the bodies of those imported. Expel them, the logic insists, and violence would magically depart with them. Same denial, different form.

One can only laugh, as George Basha does on the show, at the suggestion of alcohol causing the violence of Cronulla. Why did the drunkards specifically choose to attack Arabs and not, for example, the police who enforce the status quo they rail against; or better, each other?  The truth is in the wording: alcohol-fuelled violence. Fuel does not burn without a fire; it is only half the equation. The fire is racism, and it still burns.