Terror Australis


According to Ross Gittins (SMH, 16/11/05) the statistical chance of any Westerner dying in a terrorist attack is 0.0001 per cent.

Even Americans, the most prominent, powerful and, therefore, the most vulnerable Westerners are nine times more likely to die falling off a ladder, he claims. So, what chance has your average Aussie got of being the unfortunate victim of a terrorist attack? Notwithstanding the tragic bad luck of those killed and injured in Bali, New York and London, the chances of an Aussie like you or me dying at the hands of terrorists are infinitesimal.

Other commentators have solidly attacked Gittins’s piece. Many have made the point that while the risks may be small (extremely small) the sheer malevolence and unpredictability of suicide bombers is what makes them so frightening.

It has also been argued that politicians must be seen to take action against this tiny risk because if such an attack did occur and some claim this to be inevitable to do otherwise would be political suicide.

Leahy Cartoon

Thanks to Leahy

There is logic to these perspectives, but, the level of response to this latest round of terrorist activity after all, there is nothing new about terrorism, it’s been going on for decades, if not centuries on both a political and societal level, seems to be particularly out of proportion with the actual threat.

A lot of people are claiming that our current hysteria is a beat up by both media and government, and, no doubt, there is also some truth to this. Terrorism is a godsend for the news media. It sells newspapers like hotcakes and ups the ratings of all news and information shows and magazines. It is also a godsend for incumbent governments of whatever flavour fear always favouring the devil (or politician) you know. Indeed, in my more cynical moments, I sometimes wonder if terrorism didn’t exist would governments have had to invent it?

And it is from this admittedly cynical perspective that I have begun to notice something in our national tone of voice when we discuss terrorism, a hint that genuine fear alone does not explain Australia’s particular obsession.

My suspicion is growing that there is a small part of us that rather enjoys all the hysteria and the fear. Fear, after all, while uncomfortable, is also exciting. Fear is a wonderful antidote to boredom, particularly when the thing we fear will probably never actually affect any of our lives directly. In our case, I also wonder if some of the thrill has to do with our fragile and susceptible national ego small country syndrome, we could call it.

It is impossible to be Australian without feeling constantly forgotten, ignored and overlooked by the rest of the world. Sometimes such exclusion is done cynically, as it was by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, when he left us out of the list of countries that were part of the Coalition of the Willing. He knew perfectly well that the only people who would notice the omission were us and, by deciding to leave us out anyway, he sent a very clear message that he regarded us as unimportant.

Sometimes it is done arrogantly, as it was by the makers of The Simpsons when their normally excellent show crashed to an all time low in an episode that confused Australia with 19th century Britain and 21st century Singapore. Again, our complete irrelevance to the rest of the world was rubbed in our collective faces.

It is this sense of being the perennial little brother/sister, of being unimportant, that feeds our fanatical support of our sporting teams and constant self-congratulatory talk about ‘punching above our weight.’ It fuels our pride about Australians who are world famous (one of our favourite phrases, co-incidentally). We feel much more strongly about Russell & Kylie & Nicole & Cate & Hugh & Heath & Toni & Rachel & Bryan & Judy than larger nations feel about their respective heroes. These high-achieving Australians register us, you see, on the world’s consciousness. They get us noticed, if only for a nanosecond.

But we should not be too hard on ourselves about this (not always attractive) national characteristic. It’s only human to want to be noticed.

As every parent knows, it is one of the first and most pressing human needs. Rather than be ignored, kids will do almost anything, even behave badly. I am just as guilty of enjoying the vicarious thrill of world notoriety as anyone else. When I travel overseas I comb the news media for mentions of home, my ears prick up when I hear an Aussie accent on TV, and I experience a particular feeling about films (even bad ones) that star a famous Australian. I roared myself hoarse over the Socceroos recent victory against Uruguay despite never having watched a soccer game before in my life.

But just as Australian high achievers get us noticed, so does terrorism. The recent arrests in Sydney and Melbourne got us headlines all over the world. Headlines and this is the really revealing bit that were then duly reported back here at home, on a sort of endless feedback loop.

So, while politicians and media proprietors and program makers dread and yet also thrive on fear of terrorism, so do we all.

Yes, there is an excited sense that we are also important enough to be under threat, but I don’t want to be too harsh here. Human beings, however big or small the country they come from, are complex and contradictory creatures. We are genuinely horrified when we read the stories of deliberate death and disaster; we are genuinely moved when we read the stories of humanity and heroism that inevitably also rise out of the ashes; and we are genuinely fearful about such a thing happening to us or anyone we love.

However, there is also within all of us a human need for danger. As I have written before, danger is reality, safety is an illusion. There is a reason fairy tales are scary, there is a reason we love roller coasters and horror movies, there is a reason we slow down and gawk as we drive past a horror car crash, there is a reason bad news sells more newspapers than good news.

The danger we read about, watch, cruise past and imagine is safe danger, play danger, if you like. It is nature’s way of preparing us for the inevitable dangers we will all have to face simply by virtue of being alive.

You know, like just before we plummet off that ladder.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.