Don't blame an entire community for one young person's crime.

Last night I sat around a dinner table catching up with four of my adult cousins.

We are all in our 30s now and these catch-ups are far too rare. When we were young, we spent many school holidays togethers, most often at our Aunt and Uncle’s property, and the stories and anecdotes from those holidays go for days and days and days.

When we catch up our conversation inevitably turns to this material, and no matter how many times we have retold or relived the stories, we laugh. With disbelief, nostalgia and amazement we laugh about the silly things we did.

We could all be described, quite reasonably, as respectable citizens and there was nothing particularly outlandish about what we got up to. But we were young. And we did some silly things. We got into trouble. We did stuff our parents didn’t – and still don’t – know about.

And I suspect this makes us just like what 98% of the population are like as teenagers. As teenagers, we are not at the peak of our faculties. Our judgement isn’t necessarily tightly honed. Our grasp of responsibility isn’t fully developed. And that is why we laugh now reflecting on the silly things our younger selves did. As adults, with the benefit of hindsight, it is funny to reflect on how deliciously foolish we once were.

Being foolish is the domain of the young. And while there is a gigantic chasm between being foolish and engaging in violent criminal acts, how can we dismiss youth from any discussion about disenfranchised teenagers?

Needless to say there is no comparison between cousins misbehaving on a farm and a 15-year old shooting a man, completely unprovoked, in broad daylight. But it’s also false to say there is absolutely nothing in common.

The subject of radicalisation and youth is firmly under the spotlight following the shooting in Parramatta on Friday of Curtis Cheng and the subsequent raids in Sydney today. Was the 15 year old a religious radical? Or was he disenfranchised and acting on his own whim?

In the wake of such a blatant atrocity, naturally, we want answers. Whose fault is it?  The parents? The teachers? ISIS? Community leaders? How could this occur? What draws a young person to violent extremism? And how can we stop it?

They’re questions that need to be explored but they’re not questions that can or should be hastily answered.

parramatta shooting
Curtis Cheng was killed by a 15 year-old outside Parramatta Police Station. Image via ABC.

Human rights and refugee campaigner Sara Saleh says the hasty and predictable conclusion that a muslim teenager resoting to extreme violence is the fault of the entire Muslim community is hugely problematic.

“Demonising the Muslim community further alienates them and exacerbates tension,” Saleh told Mamamia. It reinforces the message that these citizens aren’t welcome, a sentiment that can’t be dismissed.

Teenagers resorting to violence isn’t limited to the Muslim community, and, critically, Saleh says the subject of radicalisation is far more complex than much of the media commentary suggests.

“Simplifying radicalisation is quite dangerous. It’s not something that can easily be equated with a religion. There are a number of major factors that contribute to radicalisation from racism, bullying, mental health issues, socio-economic factors,” Saleh says. “What 15 year old isn’t going through a difficult time figuring out who they are? Having people tell them they don’t belong and they’re evil – as if it’s that simple – can have quite the opposite impact.”

Saleh says the media coverage, to some extent, plays into this dangerous narrative.  The fact the 15 year old shooter was named, and his photos was widely circulated raises serious question.

“Usually, that’s not allowed in cases with minors,” she says. So why do we make the exception?


As The Australian today reports: “National security experts want the government to do more to prevent young people from becoming engaged with violent extremism — but don’t necessarily think this should be put on to Muslim organisations or mums and dads.

One security source wants the approach to be much more closely targeted at those individuals already linked to known terrorists, because it is those people who are most at risk of going on to plot other attacks.

He says the government has failed until now to put in place any sort of intervention aimed at ­diverting those individuals from violence, using counsellors, psychologists or other experts.”

As tempting and easy as it is to cast blame in a bid to clasp a solution, we need to be realistic. In the realm of teenagers being drawn to ISIS, parents and communities are up against a cunning and sophisticated operation. In the realm of teenagers being disenfranchised and rebelling, parents and communities are up against a few stubborn dynamics. And in minority communities this can be exacerbated again. For a start, teenagers are practically wired to rebel and second teenagers don’t have the same capacity as adults to assess their behaviour.  It can be a dangerous cocktail.

parramatta shooting - abc
Was the 15 year old a religious radical? Or was he disenfranchised and acting on his own whim? Image via ABC.

How many parents – in any community – know exactly where and what their children are doing at every moment in time? How many ‘community leaders’ could know this? They couldn’t and they can’t. Saleh says the suggestion that Muslim community leaders ought to be able to ‘solve’ the issue of teenagers resorting to extremism or violence is problematic.

“There is an expectation that sets us up for failure. We can’t predict the next person who will commit a crime like this, no sooner than we can predict when and where the next domestic violence incident will occur. When we talk about this, and put such expectation on the community to solve this, we are set up for failure and it furthers the cycle.”