I don’t know about you, but I’ve been pretty glued to the news coverage from Sydney, well into the night last night and for most of the day today. There are no words to express the tragedy at the loss of the two hostages who were killed during the ordeal, or the mental anguish that will probably be with the survivors in some amount for the rest of their lives. These acts are horrifying and it’s right that decent people should be horrified by them. They are terrifying, and it’s inevitable that we will be terrorized by them. But what we, or in this case the Australian public and its leaders, must not do is act out of that terror, because that’s how we all lose.
Man Haron Monis, or Sheikh Haron, or Ayatollah Manteghi Boroujerdi, or whatever he was calling himself this week, was obviously a deeply disturbed human being. He fled Iran over a decade ago claiming to be an Ayatollah and claiming that his family was being detained because of his tolerant brand of Islam and his harsh criticisms of the Iranian government. He’s not an Ayatollah, and as far as that tolerant brand of Islam is concerned, he tossed that out the window when he began sending hate mail to the families of Australian soldiers who had died fighting in Afghanistan after 9/11. More recently, he’d been accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault and was out on bail on the charge of being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. Monis found an outlet for his poison in radical Islam, declaring himself a Sunni “Sheikh” in the same way that he’d previously declared himself a Shiʿi “Ayatollah,” but his poison was not of Islam. This man’s record is twisted enough to suggest that he could have been anything — Christian, Buddhist, animist, atheist, you name it — and he still would done awful, violent things because he was a violent, dangerous, unstable human being at his core. There’s nothing about Monis that differentiates him from the non-Muslim who shoots up his place of business, or a movie theater, or a school.
So it is vitally important that his act of violence be treated as what it was, or at least what it appears to be in the absence of any evidence to the contrary: the act of a dangerous individual who lashed out at a target of convenience in order to feed whatever demon was living inside of him. This was not an organized terror plot carried out by a network of radicals. It was not one part of a wider campaign of jihadi violence against Australia. It wasn’t perpetrated by homegrown ISIS extremists returning from the Syrian battlefield in a sign of things to come. It wasn’t sponsored by some unfriendly Islamic regime whose nation should now be invaded on some flimsy pretext. And it certainly wasn’t an act for which the rest of Australia’s almost entirely law-abiding, peaceful Muslim population should be forced to pay a price.
On the battlefield, in the midst of a revolution or some other kind of war, guerrilla tactics that shade into what we would consider “terrorism” can be useful in and of themselves. Suicide bombing, for instance, can soften up a target before a full-on attack or blunt an enemy attack, and sometimes gets used even by people we’d probably classify as Good Guys. But suicide attacks of the kind you see in Western cities (and you have to assume that Monis was prepared to die carrying out this attack, don’t you?) aren’t about the attack itself so much as they’re about provoking an overreaction.
The ultimate goal for organized groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS is to weary Western nations to the point where the people of those nations demand withdrawal from the Middle East altogether. But in the meantime, and especially for lone nuts like Monis, these attacks are about getting those societies to do the terrorists’ work for them, about manipulating them into actions that boost the jihadi movement and diminish the principles upon which those Western nations claim to be based. The 9/11 attack wasn’t a victory for Al Qaeda in and of itself — for a while, in fact, when the United States limited itself to a focused retaliation against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, it looked like 9/11 might prove to be a major mistake. What made 9/11 successful for Al Qaeda was what came next: the decision to invade an unrelated nation without justification just because we needed to lash out, the decision to wad our supposed principles up into a ball and toss them on a bonfire because we needed to Protect the Homeland, the continued decisions to engage in acts that create more terrorists than they eliminate, and so on. It was our counterpunch, our wild, flailing counterpunch, that gave Al Qaeda exactly what it wanted, and then some, when it conceived of the 9/11 plot in the first place.
The same principle applies to loners like Monis, who want to elevate their madness into a cause, to justify their own desire to commit violence as the first shot in some kind of great war with Western society. They achieve that end only if we Westerners allow it. If we let attacks like what happened in Sydney generate a backlash, to worsen the treatment of Muslim communities overall, if we allow fear and hatred to manifest as bigotry, by making the Muslims living among us feel like they are Other, like they don’t really belong, like second-class citizens and first-class threats, that’s when men like Man Haron Monis win. For every Western teenager who trods off to be killed or radicalized fighting for ISIS because the rest of us made him or her feel like he or she didn’t really belong here in the first place, Man Haron Monis wins. It’s heartening to see a movement like “I’ll ride with you” crop up in the midst of this tragedy, but the fact that such a movement even needs to be created at all shows that Man Haron Monis and people like him are winning. When Muslims in the aftermath of an event like this don’t need anybody to “ride with them,” that’s when you’ll know the jihadis are losing.