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Does Woolwich killing lead to nihilism?

By Bill Calcutt - posted Monday, 27 May 2013

The recent graphic and social network-enabled coverage of a gruesome cold-blooded murder in London has inevitably led to further soul-searching about how to respond to such appalling violence in order to prevent further similar incidents. At the time of writing it is unclear whether this attack constitutes the indiscriminate and unconstrained use of violence against civilians in order to terrorise the wider community for ideological reasons. If a primary goal of the attack was to generate intense global coverage, galvanise public horror and catalyse a state reaction, then it appears to have been effective.

With each new and shocking iteration of extreme public violence it is inevitable that the authorities and a fearful community will seek reasons for the apparently inexplicable. The simplest is to point to what are perceived by some (usually inaccurately) as intrinsic religious and cultural differences. Extremist actions by locally-born young men (citizens rather than foreigners) adds a further element of perplexity in understanding the motivation for such violence.

One of the recurring and deeply disturbing themes that emerges from the attitudes of radicalised young men is their abhorrence of "crass" Western values, complemented by a deeply personal sense of righteousness and empowerment that comes from self-sacrifice for (what they are convinced are) higher ideals. Understanding the visceral appeal of self-sacrifice (particularly to socially alienated young men seeking profound personal meaning) has been partly obscured by the advice of self-styled terrorism commentators minimising individual responsibility and asserting external organisation, direction, manipulation and ideological "brainwashing".


Western society is not entirely oblivious to the concept of self-sacrifice, given the central role of crucifixion and resurrection in Judeo-Christian beliefs, and the high status that the state and community confers on individual courage and self-sacrifice in armed conflict or in defence of the community. Stories of heroism in war by brave young men constantly emphasise the overwhelming odds and lionise the warrior willing to selflessly lay down his own life in order to cause mass causalities to the enemy.

Turning to the rejection of Western (Enlightenment/secular/classical liberal) values, it is widely recognised that broad community commitment to core national values is at the heart of a shared cultural identity, social cohesion and individual commitment to the social contract. These core values include respect for equality and liberty, democratic participation, pluralism, opportunity and economic mobility, application of merit, the rule of law, compassion and non-violence, and are arguably crystallised in Winston Churchill's observation that "we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give". The dilution or distortion of these core values threatens to weaken social bonds.

It is also self-evident that these core secular values do not provide the profound meaning that some people crave, creating a sense of anomie in some and disillusionment in others. A sense of anomie is not limited to those originally from other cultures as it can also be an inevitable consequence of rapid social change. It is easy for altruistic values to be obscured by overt materialism, consumerism, exploitation and individual self-interest. The distortion of core values can be exacerbated in those who feel that they are denied access to and full participation in a society because of their membership of particular social sub-groups.

These issues are particularly relevant in a country like Australia where the core national values are only vaguely defined (compared to most other advanced societies). In addition, one of the most widely lauded attributes of the national character is a pervasive sense of egalitarianism which serves to undermine the articulation of broader higher ideals. This is because the Australian sense of egalitarianism is often translated into an abiding scepticism (and sometimes cynicism) of anything that is altruistic, idealistic, humanitarian or remotely perceived as elitist.

This abiding scepticism finds voice in the "tall poppy syndrome", the use of the term "politically correct" to denigrate anything that aims to define higher standards of behaviour, the dismissal of any discussion about national values as an attempt to resurrect "class warfare" or "culture wars", and the application of derogatory labels to anyone who seeks to advance a more thoughtful or nuanced perspective. Examples of recent derogatory labels include "academic elites", "latte sippers" and "bunyip alumni". Disturbingly the national inclination for scepticism now extends to the advice of internationally-recognised scientific and academic experts, most recently in respect to the causes and implications of climate climate.

As I noted in an earlier article, in his Australia Day address in 2006 Prime Minister John Howard lauded the absence of explicit national values that have the potential to constrain an inclusive multicultural society. The corollary is that while there are no values to limit opportunities on the way up, there are also none to act as fundamental principles on the way down, allowing Australia to plumb the depths and act in ways that are universally decried (such as the inhumanity of the current asylum-seeker policies). Unfortunately such expedient policies have the potential to reinforce a perception that the state (and perhaps even society) lacks moral legitimacy, exacerbating the potential for the radicalisation of some already disenchanted youth.

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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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