The Age last year revealed that special forces veteran Ben Roberts-Smith wore the provocative symbol of a crusader cross on his breast over his uniform while on duty in Afghanistan. Apparently “quite a few” others wore it. This is particularly problematic because while Roberts-Smith may not have perceived it that way, the cross has strong associations for the far right suggesting an era of racial purity, with the Christian west waging war on the Muslim enemy.
The armed forces redacted the symbol when the photograph was released, later describing it as “at odds with Defence values.”
Australian soldiers also created scandals sporting KKK outfits and flying the Nazi flag “for a prolonged period” while deployed in Afghanistan. This stands disturbingly alongside accusations that Australian soldiers committed war crimes there.
Thomas Sewell, who founded the National Socialist Network is a former soldier. A number of his fellow veterans have links to far-right groups. In 2021, one former soldier had his passport cancelled as a Neo Nazi. It is not known if he chose to enter the army as a Neo-Nazi or was radicalised within it. Former special forces officer, Riccardo Bosi, has been one of the leading conspiracy spruikers at “freedom rallies” in NSW, with particularly violent rhetoric. He claims to be transitioning into politics.
Military veterans have also been amongst the strong supporters of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. One notorious photograph showed a group of gym-fit veterans who had gone on to work as “emergency response” guards at Australia’s scandal-plagued refugee prisons on Nauru. Both parties were present at a “Reclaim Australia” white ethnostate rally. Refugees have reported ugly experiences with veteran guards in Australia’s indefinite detention complexes. Their Islam-hating sentiments were leveled at the wars’ victims trapped with the men who loathed them.
The University of Canberra’s National Security Hub has expressed fears that veterans are being targeted online by far-right groups. The fact that the body has Defence funding underlines that the leadership of the armed forces is beginning to take far-right radicalisation within our military, and its veterans, more seriously.
The way that authorities supervise our armed services (including police) has for too long ignored the threat that is posed to our democracy by the militant right. The growth of the conspiracy sphere has raised the threat posed by such trained individuals and groups by the depiction of governments, “the left” and minority groups as an existential threat to the national wellbeing.
Worryingly, the Australian armed forces (allegedly?) continue to prioritise religious chaplaincy over secular mental health resources. The elite group that supervises and advises upon the wellbeing of our service people has declared that it sees itself having an evangelical role in bringing God to the forces.
The international right has Pentecostal Christianity thoroughly intertwined within the conspiracy sphere. Centre Left politicians and progressive groups are defined as a child-devouring and demonic threat to the populace within these ideologies. Violence is a result. Religious symbols, banners and prayer were on display at the insurgent attack on the US’s Capitol on 6 January 2021. In far-right circles, Christianity is also deployed as a meme representing white superiority. (Although some more extreme groups prefer Nordic faiths, divorcing themselves from Christianity and its Middle Eastern roots.)
Within our political system we have parties like Pauline Hanson’s and Clive Palmer’s content to replicate the kinds of narrative and trigger words found in conspiracy and far right circles. Senator Ralph Babet’s social media feed regularly reveals conspiracy-theory messaging. The Coalition parties have both had representatives willing to ally themselves with conspiracy and far-right narratives, giving credence to the movements, and the delegitimising of the centre/left.
Murdoch’s News Corp platforms are filled with race-baiting stories. Even an Indigenous Voice to parliament, purely an advisory body, is anathema to these organs. Ben Roberts-Smith has quoted his employer, Kerry Stokes, as happy to hold a costly media platform for the power it gives him over politicians. His Channel 7 is too often held to account for racist framing of news stories.
In the standard media approach to violence committed by white terrorists, Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph covered the Wieambilla conspiracy-driven police killers with warm humanising descriptors. The former educator of the three was evoked as a dedicated NSW principal harmed by health and systemic problems. Across the media, the armed forces and in politics, violent extremists who are white have tended to be depicted as a lone threat, an outlier, or even a damaged victim.
Germany is facing this crisis. In the wake of the Nationalist Socialist Underground serial killings, the Day X plot and now the Prince’s coup plan, they have seen repeatedly both the radicalisation of citizens into violence, and the systems’ propensity to excuse and ignore the warnings. Most concerningly, Germans have seen that there may not just be shoulders shrugged at white boys gone wrong, but potentially complicity within the armed forces and security sectors with far-right aims. People with military training, a system that is lax about its weaponry, and even current serving members with access to high-tech equipment, pose a substantial threat. The far-right parliamentary party AfD is also represented in these spheres.
When a briefing took place about AG Dreyfus’s anti-corruption commission, one of the leading public servants was asked if the parameters were being future-proofed against a government without respect for our system. The public servant dismissed this with, “That’s democracy.”
This is a moment in history where “That’s democracy” reveals a normalcy bias that endangers our future. The framework of democracy protections being erected by the Albanese government needs to take into account that not all our politicians support liberal democracy. We need to challenge our media owners to face the implications of their messaging.
Further, the slowness with which our security forces have moved from seeing enemies as foreign to understanding that too many of them are our own must cease. The far-right wants the end of democracy. It’s up to us to stop their mission.
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