<i>Illustration: Glen Le Lievre.</i>
Illustration: Glen Le Lievre.

Stephen King once wrote that horror and humour were two of
the most difficult story forms to master, because funny gone wrong is
almost always horrifying, while a bungled horror story runs the risk of
eliciting shrieks of laughter in place of terror.

It didn't take long for the narrative threads of "Death Cult
in the Suburbs" to unravel and the snickering to begin. And so we find, a
few weeks after September's terror raids, that the mystery sword that
 featured so prominently in everybody's fever dreams of jihad come to
Martin Place was not in fact the  mighty blade of slashening; woe be
unto the infidel. It was just a plastic toy, according to its owner. A
replica artefact, as common in Shiite Muslim households as sun-faded
happy snaps of Pope St John Paul II in the homes of Polish Catholics.

I guess it's a lucky thing the raids only turned up a plastic
sword then. What if those 800 cops had found a toy light sabre? The
headlines would have screamed "ISIS develops terrifying Stars Wars
capability". The SAS might have been despatched to Tatooine.

There was always something dodgy about the scale of those
raids, especially given the thin pickings they seemed to turn up. Very
few arrests and now a prime piece of "evidence" negated.

Note the air quotes around the term "evidence", though. The
sword, which promised such horror in so many published, shared and
retweeted photos, never made it into court.

 If all the world's a stage, it was a prop and the hundreds
of citizens whose homes were raided weren't even players. They were
extras. Not even bit players, like the sailor whose story of being
attacked while in uniform, perhaps because he was in uniform, was
revealed as a bizarre fantasy, but only after that story had turned the
crank on tensions a few notches further.

There's something at play here that isn't as simple a
narrative as good v evil. For instance, in the month that Daash killers
cut the heads off three captives on the internet, our Saudi Arabian
allies publicly decapitated eight for various crimes including adultery,
apostasy and sorcery. Woe be unto you, Harry Potter.

 Our particular malady is not even a politics as theatre,
however. Although Tony Abbott and the media are playing the terror card
for all it's worth and more, there are legitimate security issues buried
somewhere beneath the witless hysteria, fear-mongering and click bait.

 It's fraught and complex, and the pity of our current
derangement is that it not only prevents us from seeing this and dealing
with the threat, it aggravates the condition.


While absolutely nobody anywhere was giving as much
prominence to the truth of the plastic sword as they had to its
original, scarier manifestation, Reuters' Matt Siegel published an
informative and thus widely unread piece about the unusual nature of
Australia's jihadi.

Unlike other Westerners who've travelled to fight in Syria,
our 150 or so warrior bogans have emerged from a criminal milieu,
centred on western Sydney, and specifically from "a tight-knit criminal
gang culture, dominated by men with family ties to the region around the
Lebanese city of Tripoli, near the border with Syria".

Siegel spoke to NSW Deputy Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas, a
native Arabic speaker of Egyptian background. The boss of the state's
Middle Eastern organised crime squad, Kaldas was tapped by the United
Nations to lead the investigation "into the assassination of former
Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bomb attack in Beirut in

He told Siegel that "the divide between criminal gangs and
radicals in the Lebanese community, who were driven by different
motives, had narrowed".

None of this is to narrow the focus of our paranoia from the
wider Muslim community to its much smaller Lebanese element. Kaldas is
talking about a couple of dozen crims, buried like ticks in the folds of
four or five western suburbs home to hundreds of thousands of people.
But focusing in like this, with hard clarity, can concentrate the mind
and suggest remedial action that doesn't necessarily involve squadrons
of fighter bombers or hundreds of special warfare operators.
Unfortunately for those who profit from the theatre of politics, it does
mean giving up cherished and profitable myths about the dire threat
from cultural contagion.


 So, maybe we should just ban hate preachers instead.

The sharpest jab at Tony Abbott's latest attempt to inoculate
us against the virus of jihad – and his government against some really
shabby poll numbers – came not from the opposition. Because, duh. But
rather from a couple of ordinary punters.

Enjoying a nice mutual cat lick with Alan Jones on 2GB, the
PM confessed himself to be as frustrated and angry as his host with
security laws that didn't let him just ban whoever he damned well felt
like – laws presumably passed or at least reviewed by the Howard
government after the 9/11 September 11, 2001 atrocity, but let's never
speak of that again.

Instead, once the ALP rolls over in Parliament – which will
be happening in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... – toned Abs will be red-carding "hate
preachers" because ... well, because Joe Hockey is a terrible Treasurer
and worse salesman.

Do we hear much from Labor about this? No, it was left to
Paul Dutton, a proud Barkindji man of Western NSW, to tweet, "Abbott of a
sudden worried about hate speeches & red flagging them. Well I'm
hoping that'll include shock jocks makin' idiotic claims as well."

To which Angelo Caon quipped, "We will decide who makes hate
speeches in this country and the conditions under which they are made."

Twitter: @JohnBirmingham