Saturday, October 04, 2014

OPINION: Tabloid speculation on Numan Haider and Islamic State threat is best ignored

Last Friday, the Herald Sun editorialised that there are "actively 100 Australians actively supporting terrorist organisations" in the Middle East. It's a figure that gets thrown around a lot these days. Support for terror has blown out among Australians who tick the Muslim box on their census forms.

Metropolitan newspapers across the country have provided saturation coverage to terror "suspects" and terror "supporters". And none of us are any wiser about exactly who they are or exactly what their relationship to ISIS is.
We see Facebook photos of young men boldly brandishing flags that we think look like ISIS flags. Pieces of cloth sprawled with Arabic writing. Arabic, a language spoken by millions of Christians and Muslims and Jews and people of all faiths and none. Arabic script or similar scripts used in Iran and Pakistan. It's so scary, so foreign. But more often than not, the scary words on the flags merely state that there is only one God. Hardly a revelation for a Jew or a Christian or even a Sikh.
Then we're told that Muslim extremists want to implement a strict form of sharia law where women wear burqa and infidel Westerners are beheaded. You don't expect them to be like young Melbourne teenager Numan Haider, having girlfriends and eating not-so-halal burgers at Hungry Jacks.

Haider is an unlikely suspect for what Sydney's Daily Telegraph described as "the country's first Islamic terrorist attack on home soil". And what makes the incident a terrorist attack? The 18 year old stabbed one, perhaps two, police officers. He had a knife. They had guns. He was outnumbered.

We don't know if young Haider was known to police, was involved in petty or even violent crime and had a substantial criminal record. Indeed there is no suggestion of any criminal disposition. All we know is that he was once photographed holding up a black and white flag on Facebook (whether seriously or in jest we won't know), another time driving car. We know he had been dating a girl he met at school in Year 11. We know his siblings were university students. We know he came from an Afghan family, but we have no idea what ethnic group (Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik or other) they came from or whether they were sunni or shiite.

Haider was supposed to be a "known terror suspect" How? By attending a particular mosque when he was not visiting his girlfriend? By hanging around with some radical loud mouths? By accessing online publicly available information to track the Prime Minister's movements in Melbourne? This act of online "terrorism" led one newspaper to declare Haider to be an "Abbott jihadi" or words to that effect.

Saturation reporting transformed Numan Haider. No longer was he a young man from a stable family in a stable relationship. Instead, he was an angry knife-wielding terrorist allegedly trying to behead a police officer. Or perhaps two officers. Perhaps even the PM. And until any CCTV footage is revealed, we won't have any idea of what really happened.
Incidentally, hidden in the middle of a Herald Sun story on Friday were these words: "Victoria Police said it had no evidence of a plot to behead a police officer". So how was the stabbing a terrorist act?

Stabbing police officers is an extremely serious crime. But was Mr Haider the first person to have pulled a knife on a police officer? Or to be shot dead in response? In August last year, an experienced Victorian highway patrol officer shot dead a 44-year-old man after he allegedly pulled a knife. Police Professional Standards and the Coroner became involved in that case.

I'm not suggesting police should not protect themselves when accosted with threats. Victorian Assistant Police Commissioner Luke Cornelius was right to have said last August: "Where an officer chooses to take another person's life, that is a choice which is invariably made and must be made in defence of one's own life or in defence of another person who is facing an imminent threat of serious injury or loss of life."

When Brazilian tourist Roberto Laudisio Curti was killed by a police officer using a Taser gun in Pitt Street, Sydney, in 2012 after stealing two packets of biscuits from a convenience store, both the NSW Ombudsman and the Coroner savaged police actions as "thuggish.

Similar investigations will be carried out into police actions on that fateful night at Endeavour Hills. But that will be unlikely to stop imbecilic reporting that describes the deceased as a "dead terrorist" or that splashes photos of an upset family friend attending the Haider family home to prepare for the young man's funeral.

Tabloid columnists may regard asking critical and forensic questions undermining their simplistic narrative as being akin to "slandering our country". Let them direct their hysterical allegations at the Coroner and Police Professional Standards. The rest of us can ignore tabloid speculation and pray for the families of the dead boy and the injured police officers doing their job.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and award-winning author. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 2 October 2014.

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