A day after a group of elderly cartoonists were murdered in Paris, Aly, who is the happy beneficiary of freedom of his speech - in newspapers, on television, and in academia - kicked-off his column by noting the latest terrorist attack, didn't mention why or who or how many, then he seygway into missing planes and alcohol fueled violence, before concluding, self-righteously, from the safety of his free speech keyboard, that Australia is as safe as houses, and what the hell's all the fuss about, hey? Last year was the safest year ever. Fist bump!
Because that's how you defend terrorism and Islam and freedom of speech and democratic values: by doing a cute little shrug of the shoulders, and accepting that global terrorism is now normal, so should we all get over it folks, and besides, we're safe in our little country, and oh look, there's a moral and mortal equivalence between Islamic terrorism and planes falling out of the sky and idiot drunks who become violent.
Because one day after the cruel and brutal murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, that's how Waleed Aly saw the world: one big normal, and let's not mention a bunch of old guys being murdered, let's not mention that they were the only guys left putting their lives on the line to protect Aly's assumption of freedom of thought, of religion, of speech, of the press, of academia.
Any other time Aly would have rolled out his lone lunatic defense, and how a lone wolf isn't true Islam (he never tells us how many wolves it takes before we're allowed to call them a pack), and don't get terrorism and Muslims all mixed up, but not this time. This time, Aly didn't even bother, telling us this is normal, and if it's normal, then we'll get used to it, and accept it, and we'll metaphorically shrug our shoulders in that cute and dismissive way that Aly did when he put digit to keyboard with his most disingenuous turning of a blind-eye to Islam being the root cause of Islamic terrorism.
Most of us would have no trouble identifying the differences between the root cause of planes crashing, one punch to someone's head, and someone arming themselves and murdering people.
Besides all of that, I'd weary of everyone pretending that Islam is all about religion. It's not. Islam is most strongly a political ideology, with laws of it's own, and it's the political and legal system that Islamic terrorists seek to impose on the rest of us; they're not really after our conversion to their religion of peace.
The past year may go down as one of shattered myths as the realities of global terrorism, the dangers of flying and random violence are brought home.Plane crashes, terrorism, random violence - new realities amid our relative security
Is this just normal now? That's perhaps the most disturbing thought I had as news of another terrorist attack, this time in Paris, broke. Somehow this has begun to look familiar, like an episode in a show we've seen before. The feeling is familiar too: when you awake to something catastrophic, unprecedented and unthinkable – or so you thought.
This feeling, more than anything, seems to have defined the past year; a year that, by apparent consensus, was positively, gallingly crappy. It's not just terrorism – to which I'll return, soon – it's everything. It's the feeling I had as watching the debris and dead bodies from that AirAisa flight being retrieved, it was like witnessing a ghoulish symbolic performance of a year in review. Little symbolises the unique squalor of 2014 like the bizarrely tragic year in aviation. Surely the worst ever.
Except that it wasn't. Not by a long shot. "By numbers – the safest year in modern aviation history," trumpeted the Aviation Safety Network. That might be hard to take as you contemplate the sorry fate of Malaysia Airlines and its passengers. But there it is: only eight planes crashed in 2014. That's three fewer than the previous best, a couple of years ago. And this in an age when there are more planes in the air than ever before. Really, it was a relative triumph. Do the statistics lie?
Well, yeah, a bit. But not shamelessly. Judged by numbers of deaths, rather than crashes, 2014 is the worst year since the late '90s. Even so 2014 was still better than almost every year before that going back to 1960. Plot them on a graph and last year doesn't disturb the general downward trend. Turns out it doesn't look as out of place as it felt.
That sort of thing happened quite bit last year. That's not to deny that it was objectively terrible in many ways, often in the ways we didn't feel so keenly. There is no silver lining I can find to 7000 Ebola deaths, for instance, even if this seemed to lack the emotional kick of Phillip Hughes'. But it's also true that the things that angered, depressed and panicked us were less than they appeared.
We began with Daniel Christie, whose brief 2014 was spent entirely in a coma until his family ended life support after a few days. One punch, a fractured skull, then death. The facts are so arresting precisely because they are so simple and so few. And so, in a flash came the media coverage, the political responses and the public awareness campaigns. The "king hit" became the "coward's punch", and whatever it was called it became the target of a new criminal offence. Sentencing became mandatory. Venues had lockouts and new, enforced closing times. We had been provoked by a new and growing scourge. Australia had a major drinking problem, and with it a marauding violence problem, and Christie was the face of it.
And yet. The statistical truth is that we're drinking less than we were around the time Kevin Rudd ousted John Howard, and massively less than we did in the '70s and '80s when, apparently, we were perpetually tanked. Violence on licensed premises is dropping, too, and so are alcohol-related assaults. We're even going to hospital less for alcohol-related reasons. And this with a growing population.
Of course, none of that helps the Christies. And – to be sure – none of it means there isn't a serious problem we've been ignoring for too long. But there is something to learn from the way a problem can suddenly become a panic.
So back to terrorism, that other definitive blight on last year, and given the tragic events in Paris, quite probably this one. The frightening emergence of ISIS abroad, then in a more symbolic form at home tell us this is no mere illusion. We witnessed the first domestic casualties of Islamist terrorism we've had. This all has a vaguely apocalyptic feel, and yet when more than 20 Australian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in 2010-11 it hardly gave us pause. That just felt normal. So we performed the customary ceremonies and moved on to worrying about the carbon tax which, by contrast, seemed to scare the pants of us.
Here's the thing: in our streets, in our bank accounts and in the air, we in Australia lead about the safest, most secure lives of any people. Ever. Our real income is up and the road toll is down (the lowest since 1945, by the way). We live without any genuine prospect of political strife. We're not about to be invaded or bombed with nuclear weapons – our most feared enemies have knives and guns, not armies in tanks. We're not likely to be decimated by some disease or virus – Ebola or otherwise. Yes we have problems, but they're the kind most of our species could only have dreamed of having. And yet that's so easy to forget because there's this continuous, churning fear.
Our mortal selves aren't under threat, here. But the myths we've built about ourselves very much are. The myth that our addiction to alcohol is innocently, endearingly larrikin, for example. Or that the problems of the world – like Russia's incursion into Ukraine or the disaster of Iraq and Syria – have no call on us and simply don't raise their heads in Sydney or Paris. Indeed the myth – that incidentally underscores how cheerfully we'll slash foreign aid – that we can set ourselves apart as (largely uninterested) onlookers: that the world is a sideshow to which we'll occasionally buy a ticket, but not our society.
Maybe we don't realise it yet, but 2014 might just be the year those myths died. That, I think, is why it hurts and shocks so much. This is as painful a process for a society as losing people. It's not just that people perished and dangers emerged. It's that those deaths and dangers weren't meant to happen. Not to us. And I can't find any statistics that can remove that feeling.
Bonus notes from Aly ... it's all just a misunderstanding and Al Qaeda has had no impact on Islam:
ANDREW DENTON: What has Al Qaeda done to Islam?WALEED ALY: to Islam probably nothing. I think in the long run organisations like Al Qaeda don’t have a long term impact because they don’t stand for much. And people will eventually find that out. I was having a conversation with a a friend of mine who is an expert in Middle East politics and radicalisation in the Middle East and he made the point, he said if Al Qaeda had a slogan it would basically be we blow stuff up. That’s pretty much it, and once you get beyond that, once you’ve blown stuff up what happens?
WALEED ALY: Well, I think where the world’s headed right now I don’t find particularly inspiring or hopeful and the book is kind of all about that. It’s about why the world’s stuffed basically, at the moment. but we can turn that around you know. I think it’s possible for human beings if really if they commit themselves to understanding each other, even if they don’t like each other, but just actually understanding each other, you know informed hatred is what I’m after Andrew. If no, but seriously…
ANDREW DENTON: It’s a noble ambition.WALEED ALY: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. It’s a peace prize kind of ambition isn’t it? If we can actually commit make you know really try to understand each other then I think the trajectory will change.