Peaceful politics shattered

Shinzo Abe

This article, by Dr William Stoltz, appeared in the Herald Sun on 11 July 2022.

Watching the moments leading up to Shinzo Abe’s assassination, one is struck by the similarities to Australian electioneering. The candidate pressing the flesh with a crowd of party faithful and constituents, smartphones in hand, primed for a selfie, and unencumbered by plexiglass, metal detectors, or bodyguards as is the norm of American campaigning.

Abe’s murder also has terrifying similarities to the killings of UK MPs Jo Cox in 2016 and David Amess in 2021, both struck down while engaging with their communities as Abe was.

Japan’s experience is a stark warning to those democracies such as ours which share the same peaceful traditions of open and accessible relationships between public officials and their constituents.

Political assassinations, until now, have been exceedingly rare in Japan, as they have been in Australia. But there are reasons to be nervous that our largely peaceful politics could be similarly shattered.

A key factor is that the digital fracturing of our information environment allows radicals and the mentally unsound in equal measure to fester within curated alternate realities where violence is uncritically fomented. History is a guide of what terrible consequences can arise.

Political violence can be contagious, as shown by the anarchist attacks on political leaders which rocked the international community throughout the late 19th the early 20th centuries. In this period radicals who wanted to upend their societies made attempts on multiple leaders, including the Tsar of Russia, the German Kaiser, and the kings of Spain and Belgium.

These acts were intended to beget more anarchist violence in what revolutionary writers called ‘the propaganda of the deed’. This bloody frenzy led to the successful assassinations of US President William McKinley, the kings of Spain, Greece, and Portugal, and most infamously the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian anarchists, an act which precipitated Europe’s disintegration into the Great War.

That this inspiration to violence carried across numerous countries and leveraged the local grievances of multiple radical groups was due in no small part to the golden age of newspaper publication coinciding with the advent of the telegraph. For the first time this allowed disparate radicals to devour stories of violence abroad and generate a sense that they were part of a global movement. This same effect is supercharged today, as we all watched high-definition video of Shinzo Abe’s final moments streamed across Twitter and the 24-hour news.

It is this ability to snatch the attention of the world that appeals to terrorists and lunatics alike. By cutting down a historic figure like Shinzo Abe, his assassin Tetsuya Yamagami - otherwise a complete nobody – will be propelled into the history books alongside Abe san, albeit as a wretched footnote in the final chapter of the life of a great man.

We need to be alive to the risk of such violence and aggression in our own politics. Yes, Australia is blessed to have had a historically peaceful civic exchange. Lacking a history of revolutionary politics, violence has typically not been a feature of Australia’s political culture, save for outlying exceptions like the amateurish attempted assassination of Arthur Calwell in 1966. But there are warning signs of a darker turn taking place.

The number of close personal protection officers assigned to the new Albanese Cabinet is unclear, but the previous Coalition government saw a record number of Cabinet members require 24-hour protection, with the former Treasuer and Defence Minister both being assigned CPP details of the same size as the Prime Minister. And this protection was required not from overseas threats, but home grown aggressors, including in Josh Frydenberg’s case credible anti-Semitic threats to the lives of him and his family.

Arresting this trend starts in our discourse about public officials, particularly we need to call out aggressive hyperbole in the media and the physical targeting of people in public life. Examples include some of the graphic threats against Chief Health Officers during the pandemic and the personal targeting of candidates in the last election, including the egging of MPs and the vandalism of their homes.

As gratifying as it can be to see fools get egged, the celebration of such aggression, especially on Twitter, normalises a place for violence in our democratic contests. This must be stamped out, as in the mind of the radical or unhinged it creates a permission structure to lash out physically at politicians not just to humiliate them, but eventually to harm them.

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Updated:  10 August 2022/Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/Page Contact:  Web administrator