The Politics of Fear (Part II: All Extremists are the Same)

With further counter-terrorism arrests carried out in Sydney this morning, I expect the same tired tensions bubble to the surface. Hiding behind the thin rhetoric of ‘national security’ and ‘Western values’, anti-Muslim campaigners will crawl out of their caves, blink a bit, projectile vomit some casual racism and then scurry away before the light of rational argument hurts their maladjusted ideas.

If you think that I’m exaggerating, consider the recent comments from Tony Abbott, Donald Trump and this clever individual. All of the anti-Muslim rhetoric is easily refuted idiocy, of course, but that’s not the problem. Even without a capacity to persuade, these anti-Muslim comments have the capacity to divide and infuriate. The division they attempt to create is between “us and them”, between the West and Islam. Funnily enough, this is exactly the same division that ISIS is trying to create (as pointed out by Waleed Aly). What the extremists on both sides realise is that fear and hatred are the best ways to conscript a larger population to your cause. The politics of fear is cynical and cheap.

However, the spectacle of counter-terrorism arrests brings out not only the worst parts of public debate, but also the worst parts of media reporting. The media relies on narratives, and one of the key devices of storytelling is conflict. Unfortunately, the “us and them” narrative inherently contains conflict, and hence provides a neat and easy way to report on terrorism-related events. What this lazy storytelling does, though, is entrench the fear that lies at the heart of the “us and them” narrative.

This piece does not have the answers. What I want to establish here is that as soon as we slip into the “us and them” mentality, we exacerbate the problem of terrorism. As soon as we start to witch-hunt individuals, we intensify the acrimony that leads to violence. When we impose arbitrary rules on individuals (such as forcing individuals who have been charged with terrorism and are in custody to speak only English), we are taking a step backwards. As a society, we lose when we allow our empathy to be cut off by our anger or our fear. Fear and anger are destructive emotions, and destruction is exactly what extremists want to achieve.