How we can fight violent extremism after far-right rally
The great American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect [a person] falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
This is the answer to those who say that neo-Nazis should be free to demonstrate at public rallies. It also explains why our current vilification laws are inadequate and need reform.
No rational person will deny that Nazism was a very great evil. It was a so-called doctrine that denied the right of others to exist, and advocated for their destruction.
The tall, blue-eyed and blond Aryans were “the master race”. Groups who the Aryans disliked were designated as “subhuman” and targeted for mass destruction.
The irony is that Hitler was a short, dark-haired Austrian, but in Nazi Germany that did not matter. His manipulation of a willing German populace produced the horrors of the Holocaust.
Jews were the primary targets and we were slaughtered in our millions. Homosexuals, gypsies and others were also exterminated. Each group was perceived as different and “the other”. We became a convenient scapegoat for the ruined German economy of the post-depression 1930s.
You might have thought that Nazism was consigned to the history books, something to be learned in schools and studied by academics as an example of mass societal failure. Sadly, this is not true.
In the Jewish community, as part of our protective work, we collate data on acts of hate. We know of the offensive beliefs that thrive among the trolls who lurk under the bridges that link the globe through the World Wide Web.
And so it comes to the events of three days ago, Saturday March 18. At an anti-transgender rally, a group of about 20 neo-Nazi thugs turned up.
Dressed in their best Australian imitation of 1930s fascists – black bucket hats, T-shirts and shorts – they stood in line. Too cowardly to show their faces, most were masked. They had an offensive banner and they performed Nazi salutes. There could be no confusion as to who they were and why they were there.
Neo-Nazis marched on Spring Street on Saturday.Credit:Chris Hopkins
It is easy to mock a small group who are so far from rational thought that they think their deluded message is welcome in Victoria. But that downplays both the intent and effect of their attendance on Saturday.
The odious contention of these neo-Nazis was that the anti-transgender protesters, stirred up by an overseas speaker, were not doing a good enough job of denying transgender rights.
They intended to create a literal “wall”, a bastion between the transgender counter-demonstrators and Parliament House. The symbolism was clear. The transgender community is not wanted, not to be tolerated, and is to be denied access to the instruments of society. With their words and their acts, these blackshirts say “you”, the transgender community, are not part of “us”, the Victorian community.
Such a demonstration would be illegal in Germany. The Germans have faced up to their past, and have learned from it. But not so here. Victoria Police did their best to manage a volatile situation, but they lacked the tools. The neo-Nazi demonstration was offensive and hateful. But unlike Germany, it was not unlawful.
Members of the neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Network at the rally on Saturday.Credit:Chris Hopkins
As a community, how should we respond?
First, the state government should act. The Jewish community is pleased that the Attorney-General has moved quickly to ban the Nazi salute, with the support of the opposition. But that is only a stopgap. We cannot continue to chase symbols and gestures – Nazi swastika today, Nazi salute tomorrow. We must look more carefully at offences of intention to vilify.
The Andrews government announced pre-election that there will be reform of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. If the police do not have the tools to prevent a neo-Nazi rally, then clearly the legislation is not fit for purpose.
Second, the Commonwealth government needs to look at proper establishment and funding of deradicalisation programs to prevent disaffected individuals from heading down extremist pathways. We will never eliminate violent extremism, whether neo-Nazi or otherwise. But we can limit their potential recruiting pool. It is expensive, and is not easy. But it is critically important, and it is necessary.
Third, as a society we all have work to do. On Sunday, the day after the rally, I attended the annual “In One Voice” Jewish Street festival in Elsternwick. I heard Hebrew rock songs and queued up for a kosher falafel in pita. I saw the vibrancy of my community. And yes, I stopped by the Jewish LGBTQ stand for a chat. I felt pride for my community, for what it can offer to the Victorian community – and which it does every day.
As a society, our best answer to the exclusionary demonstration on Saturday is to embrace difference. As human beings we are all different, and collectively we should be proud of that fact.
Daniel Aghion KC is president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, and a barrister.
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