Wednesday, February 8, 2012

There But for Fortune...

Last weekend, whilst walking down the street, I noticed a stooped and wizened old codger unfortunate enough to bear a striking resemblance to Sydney Morning Herald pundit Gerard Henderson.

He was standing at a bus stop and reading a copy of the Herald, his face hideously contorted as might his presumed doppelganger's be after reading of a newly elected Rhiannon government. I involuntarily muttered to myself (for I am nothing if not attuned to the plight of those less fortunate than myself), 'You poor old bugger. There but for Fortune go I'. And then, as I drew near, oblivious of all around him, in the grip of some intense inner torment he could not control, the wretched creature crumpled the paper he'd been reading and ejaculated in a mighty rage, 'Typical! Just typical!'.

After initially wondering what it was in the paper that had awakened his inner Basil Fawlty, I thought little more of the incident - until yesterday, that is, when I opened the opinion page of the Herald to see the ancient nutter's lugubrious visage staring back at me, with the name Gerard Henderson emblazoned in red beneath.

OMG, exclaimed I, it was Gerard Henderson!

And then, after a quick glance at the headline - Threat from enemy within makes anti-terrorism laws indispensible - I knew exactly what it was that had loosed the bee in the old bugger's bonnet: Herald journalist Debra Jopson's expose Australian terrorists now bred at home.

I gritted my teeth and read on.

Henderson began by noting that a "large number" of "the 21 men who have been convicted of terrorism-related charges following Operation Pendennis in Sydney and Melbourne and Operation Neath in Melbourne" were "of Lebanese descent." This then was the reason for the very public ejaculation which I had witnessed - sorry - heard on the weekend.

He went on to quote from a certain Monash University academic before fingering Malcolm Fraser for letting the grandparents of these terrorist scum into the pristine paradise which was 70s Australia. And then, in one almighty leap, concluded: "Some Muslim Lebanese-Australians have done well. Many have not. Too many are involved... in criminal gangs in Sydney's south-west."

This could, of course, have been phrased - by way of stating the bleeding obvious - as follows: 'Most Lebanese-Australians have done well. Some have not. And a few are involved in criminal gangs...' But then that would hardly have served his redneck, Muslim-bashing agenda.

But why get all hot and bothered? He's obviously past it, thought I, recalling the pathetic figure I'd seen at the bus stop. The Age long ago gave up on him, I told myself, and the Herald only keeps him on because, for reasons best known to itself, it simply cannot bear the thought of terminating the dubious services of those who've so patently had their day. I mean how else does one explain the continued presence on its opinion page of Paul Sheehan? But that's another story. At any rate, I consoled myself, who but I actually reads the gripes of this garrulous old grump?

But I was wrong about that. Someone other than I had read The enemy within..., for there, among the letters in today's Herald, was a corrective from the very Monash University academic he'd quoted, Andrew Zammit of the Global Terrorism Research Centre. Titled Flaws in arguments over Muslim terrorism, Zammit had written:

"First, Henderson cites me as referring to 33 terrorism convictions. My paper actually referred to 33 prosecutions, not convictions. There were some acquittals, and the 33 did not include non-jihadism-related terrorism charges, such as the 3 Tamil Tiger supporters charged in Victoria.

"Secondly, he accurately quotes me as saying 'while Lebanese-Australian Muslims make up 60% of those charged over alleged jihadist activity, they constitute only 20% of all Australian Muslims'. However, I pointed out we should be hesitant to draw firm conclusions from this sample given how small it is, and that further research was needed. I also stressed that the activities of such few people can't be used to justify generalisations about Lebanese-Australian Muslims as a whole.

"Also, Henderson is correct to point out that the 'Lebanese concession' - the Fraser government's expanded intake of Lebanese civil war refugees in 1976 - was poorly implemented and that Lebanese Muslims often had little support on arrival. However, the findings in my paper do not support Henderson's argument that the 'Lebanon concession' was wrong altogether. The paper did examine Lebanese immigration during the civil war period and consequent social disadvantage; it did not state that convicted terrorists were necessarily children of those who arrived during the 'concession' which was only a short-lived episode in a large-scale immigration intake. In any case, it's a stretch to argue that Australia should not have given refuge to thousands of people fleeing a brutal civil war because of a couple of failed terrorism attempts decades later."

As Zammit's letter may actually prove the last straw for the Herald, and because, as I've said, I'm basically a softie, I for one will be pleading Henderson's case before the paper's editor-in-chief. There but for Fortune go you or I, I'll be reminding him.

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