Monday 17 December 2018

Dundalk attack wasn't terrorism, but it's foolish to be complacent

It's right to tread warily when strangers arrive in Ireland with no ID or apparent reason to be here, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Gardai investigate a stabbing incident on the Avenue Road in Dundalk which has left one man dead. Picture: Arthur Carron
Gardai investigate a stabbing incident on the Avenue Road in Dundalk which has left one man dead. Picture: Arthur Carron

The news takes a predictable pattern. Some awful random attack occurs. People are hurt, killed. The perpetrator then turns out to be a Muslim migrant.

Speculation quickly abounds as to whether the attacker had a terrorist motive. In the absence of concrete facts, racists leap on the attack to prove either that borders are too porous, or that Muslims are innately savage, or both. People desperate not to be associated with this bigotry condemn the racists.

If the attack turns out to have a terrorist motive, racists are jubilant, while those more sympathetic to immigration insist the actions of one man should not be used to tarnish all Muslims, because most Muslims are peaceful and law abiding. If, on the other hand, mental health issues are pinpointed as the most likely cause, bigots start whispering about a cover-up, while defenders of the Islamic community say: "See? We told you there was nothing to worry about."

The attack in Dundalk last Wednesday morning, in which a 24-year-old Japanese man was stabbed to death, and two other men wounded, during a mercifully brief spree of violence by a young man of still indeterminate nationality, followed that pattern to a T. Horror gave way instantly to speculation. Interested parties took up their stock positions, ready to fight it out over the "real" meaning of the attack. The victim, local resident Yosuke Sasaki, became almost a detail in his own tragedy.

Who's right? Both sides are. There is an unseemly haste to dismiss any attack by those from a Muslim or Middle Eastern background as motivated by mental health issues, rather than political extremism; and the persistent use in the media of the word "teen" to describe the killer, while accurate, felt like a bid to emphasise his vulnerability rather than culpability.

Similarly, there is an equally unseemly haste to tar all Muslims as mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

Yosuke Sasaki a 24-year-old Japanese man was stabbed to death, and two other men wounded, during a mercifully brief spree of violence
Yosuke Sasaki a 24-year-old Japanese man was stabbed to death, and two other men wounded, during a mercifully brief spree of violence

When it comes to these issues, as so often, the truth lies, messily, somewhere in the middle. In Mohammed Morei's case, the police insist they have no reason to suspect terrorism, and the young man's behaviour when he appeared in court on Thursday, shouting "I'm no Muslim" and "I'm not gay", does point to a mental breakdown rather than a coordinated jihadi attack.

It is a worrying incident, though, and does expose some of the dangers of allowing troubled individuals to just come to Ireland, where their particular needs, and religious and cultural traditions, may not be properly understood by hard-pressed immigration and social services staff.

Movement back and forth across open borders is relatively easy. It happened to be Dundalk last week, but it could have been anywhere. It could be anywhere again, and sighs of relief that this incident was not, as originally feared, Ireland's first jihadi attack should not give way to complacency.

It's particularly hypocritical of people who refused to accept that mental health issues were to blame for Alan Hawe's murder of his wife, Clodagh, and their three sons in Co Cavan, to now leap in and seize on mental health as the catch-all excuse for every atrocity in which the attacker has a Muslim name, and to accuse anyone else who doesn't accept that simplistic analysis as being a racist. Those who were rightly troubled by the urgency with which Alan Hawe's crimes were ascribed to his damaged mental health should understand why others are disturbed to see attacks such as that in Dundalk dismissed with the same convenient buzzwords.

Mental health does not deteriorate without a context. With lots of young Muslim men feeling angry and displaced, and after suffering who knows what terrible experiences to reach this side of the world - escaping traumas in their own countries that we can barely understand - it would be absurd to close one's eyes to the impact this must have on their mental health, or the form any such breakdown might take.

Criticising the authorities for not doing more to stop such attackers is a form of displacement. People do want to know how this man came to be here from the UK, and why, after coming to the attention of the Garda and having no identification papers, he was sent to Dublin to be processed as an asylum seeker, and how he came to be back in Dundalk next day.

These are legitimate questions, which must be answered quickly to reassure the public every precaution is being taken that such awful events could not happen again. There is a fine line, however, between careful inquiry and furious recrimination.

Had Mohammed Morei been detained on his discovery in Ireland, there would be plenty of voices bleating now about breaches of his human rights.

In truth, of course, nothing can stop random attacks, whether committed for terrorist motives or because of mental health issues. Terrorism has long been the "new normal". Now spree attacks by people with mental health issues are being portrayed as the new normal too. Ireland has escaped this scourge so far, but absolute security is impossible in a free society.

The increasing borderlessness of the world means it will become ever harder to stop people entering one's territory, either for benign or evil purposes, which is why it is all the more important to deal with those who do, when they come under the radar, promptly and, if necessary, robustly. Those who arrive without identification should be treated as suspect until they can prove otherwise.

That may be the only lesson of what happened in Dundalk. Other than that, the only hope is that the Garda shut down awful situations as quickly as possible once they begin. They appear to have done so in Dundalk. Unarmed officers remain the front line in the fight against violent crime of all hues, and deserve every credit for facing those risks without flinching.

Sunday Independent

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