• The response to the Springvale Bank fire by a 21-year-old asylum seeker highlights a dangerous political divide. (AAP)Source: AAP
Reactions to acts of violence say a lot about a person, and a nation.
Jill Stark

24 Nov 2016 - 2:51 PM  UPDATED 24 Nov 2016 - 2:53 PM

What kind of man could walk into a crowded bank and light a fire that causes an explosion injuring dozens of people?

It’s a question many asked after the horrific events that unfolded in Springvale in Melbourne’s south-east on Friday.

27 people, including several children, were injured in an arson attack that left Commonwealth Bank customers and staff running for their lives.

Melbourne bank fire: Two people are fighting for their life after man 'sets himself alight'
Police have yet to rule out terrorism as the motive behind a 21-year-old man setting himself alight in a bank in Melbourne that left four people in a critical condition and two fighting for their life.

It later emerged the man accused of the attack is a 21-year-old Rohingya asylum seeker from Myanmar, who allegedly set himself and the bank alight.

His flatmates said Nur Islam, who slept on a single bed in the corner of a share house lounge room, had been “struggling mentally” and was growing increasingly agitated at his inability to access Centrelink payments.

It didn’t take long for the knee-jerk pen portraits to begin. How flattering they were depended on which side of the ideological fence the writer sat.

Those on the Left were quick to point out that mental illness and desperation are the inevitable byproducts of an offshore detention system that further traumatises people seeking sanctuary from persecution.

They also criticised a bridging visa system that prohibits people having their asylum claims assessed from seeking work, forcing them to live on welfare payments of just over $400 a fortnight.

For the Right, it was simple: here was a welfare parasite who repaid Australia’s hospitality with an appalling act of violence, underscoring the need for tighter border controls and a more stringent vetting system.

A journalist friend, who had been at the scene in Springvale, received email after email from people who had read her reports and came to that conclusion.

One wrote: “The arsonist is typical of a huge majority of ‘asylum’ seekers, they have been spun a tale by the Green/Left that Oz is an early version of their mythical heaven, and are pissed off when they can't get what they demand.”

This is, of course, demonstrably untrue. The majority of people who seek asylum in Australia want little more than sanctuary from war or persecution for them and their families.

Yet we see what we want to see.

Bigotry and xenophobia should always be called out but if we presume everyone who does not share our view is an extremist we risk creating more of the very thing we’re eager to stop.

If it matches our world view, the typical asylum seeker is a threat, like Iranian-born Man Monis, who killed two people in the 2014 Lindt Café siege in Sydney, after being granted asylum status in Australia in 2001.

That world view does not extend to seeing Brisbane taxi driver Aguek Nyok, who last month kicked in the doors of a burning bus to save terrified passengers caught up in a firebomb attack that killed the driver. Nyok had spent years in refugee camps after fleeing war-ravaged South Sudan, and has been nominated for a bravery award for his selfless act.

Which one is the “typical” asylum seeker? The answer is neither.

Reducing people to lazy stereotypes might be comforting in the face of unspeakable tragedy but homogenising an entire group of people does little to help us understand what led to the events or to prevent them happening again.

That goes for both sides of the political spectrum. It may pain those on the Left to admit it but not every American who voted for Donald Trump was a hateful bigot driven by racism and misogyny. The same likely applies to those who backed Pauline Hanson.

Bigotry and xenophobia should always be called out but if we presume everyone who does not share our view is an extremist we risk creating more of the very thing we’re eager to stop.

Conversely, those aligned with the Right must resist the temptation to paint all people with progressive views as precious snowflakes who want to police language and turn Australia into a Marxist state.

As the political landscape becomes increasingly polarised we should be cautious about black and white thinking; it rarely changes anyone’s mind, nor does it change the situation we are railing against.

It can be hard to show empathy when a person’s world view is, to our mind, not only wrong but potentially dangerous, but it’s hard to see how the gulf in the current political landscape can be bridged with more division.

Shouting into a vacuum and seeing only what we want to see will do nothing but make us hoarse.

Love this story? Follow the writer on Facebook  and Twitter.

Melbourne bank fire attack suspect visited numerous banks
An asylum seeker accused of causing an explosion at a Melbourne bank reportedly went to numerous banks asking for money.
Racism: moving beyond tribalism
The reality of racism lies in what it does to an individual and the personal devastation it wreaks.
Why you should care about the casual racism on television
Australia has a problem with diversity on television. If we don’t see people from culturally diverse backgrounds working in certain professions, it makes it harder for us to think we can break through, says Osman Faruqi.