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The Train family murders
On November 28, 2022, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s director-general of security, Mike Burgess, stood inside ASIO’s heavily guarded headquarters on Lake Burley Griffin with the minister for home affairs, Clare O’Neil, delivering a press conference on the national terror threat. Burgess replied to a question regarding the relative threats posed by violent extremism motivated by religion on the one hand and by ideology on the other, by explaining that they remained at “near parity”.
“Of course,” he said, “our biggest concern remains the actions of a lone actor or an individual that goes to violence with little or no warning, and that can come from either cohort.
“The proliferation of extremist content online means individuals are radicalising very quickly – in days and weeks – so the time between flash to bang is shorter than ever.”
Fourteen days later, six people were shot dead in Wieambilla, north-west of Toowoomba in Queensland’s rural Western Downs.
Before someone brightened it up with photographs of the tidy FoodWorks, the pub and some camels kissed by sun, Google Map’s images for Tara – the nearby country town where Stacey Train, 45, worked while living in Wieambilla with her husband Gareth, 47 – were grim. A rusted tractor. An abandoned homestead with a dirty toilet and holes where walls once were.
Immediately after the killings came a deluge of reporting. Much of it emphasised the exceptional, backwoods quality of the Trains’ part of Wieambilla, known as “the blocks”, where they killed two police officers and a neighbour on December 12. It was an area “few had heard of ”, a place where people kept to themselves behind locked gates on isolated bush blocks without electricity, running water or sewerage. “This lonely dirt road was the only way in of Nathaniel, Gareth and Stacey Train’s ‘sovereign state’, as they called it,” a reporter for 7News intoned as a drone shot centred him as the sole sign of human life in a dizzily expanding rural vastness. “A bit of a mecca for people seeking alternative lifestyles, it’s littered with ‘keep out’ signs,” The Project reported. “Harsh, isolated, the perfect scene for the most devastating crime.”
On all major networks, footage aired of shocked locals and floral tributes at the police station in Chinchilla, the larger nearby town where the slain officers had worked. “I think we’re all still trying to grasp why it happened, how come it happened in our community,” a local woman told The Project. Guardian Australia’s Joe Hinchliffe, reporting from Tara, was interviewed for that segment. Asked whether Gareth Train’s “pretty wild” conspiracy theories were unusual in the area, he explained that one of the first things you see on Tara’s main street is a big black sign with hand-painted slogans about Australia descending into a dictatorship, and the need to stand up for freedom. “The sign has flags fluttering above it talking about a people’s revolution,” Hinchliffe reported, “so certainly there is a loud anti-vax presence, a minority presence, but a visible and a loud one. In terms of the more outrageous, wilder conspiracy theories that we know that Gareth subscribed to, it’s hard to gauge how widely those are held. Gareth – he was a survivalist, he was a doomsday prepper, he was preparing to live out the apocalypse in his property, and it’s unsurprising that the people in town, the first they’d seen of him, for many people, was when he was splashed across the news. So, people who hold these kind of ideas, they keep themselves in the blocks, and you don’t really know what a lot of those people are up to.”
In an age of effectively unmediated online content and connectivity, no problems are limited to the blocks. Those slogans and conspiracy theories are all over the internet, available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Which is all to say that since last December, much of the master narrative about Wieambilla has reminded me of a line that author and filmmaker Ross Gibson once wrote about the “Horror Stretch” in another part of Queensland: “It is a place where evil can be banished so that goodness can be credited, by contrast, in the regions all around … a place set aside for a type of story that we still seem to need.”
In his 2021 threat assessment, Burgess had explained ASIO’s revision of its terminology to divide terrorist threats into religiously motivated violent extremism (RMVE) and ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE), saying, “Words matter. They can be very powerful in how they frame an issue and how they make people think about issues.” He stated that “labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ often distract from the real nature of the threat”.
ASIO doesn’t investigate people solely because of their political views. “While the views advocated by many extremists groups are appalling,” Burgess said, “as a security service, ASIO’s focus is the threat of violence. In the same way, we don’t investigate people because of their religious views – again, it’s violence that is relevant to our powers – but that’s not always clear when we use the term ‘Islamic extremism’. Understandably, some Muslim groups – and others – see this term as damaging and misrepresentative of Islam, and consider that it stigmatises them by encouraging stereotyping and stoking division. Our language needs to evolve to match the evolving threat environment.” Given decades of Muslim-Australian communities being treated as a security risk, the framing and timing of the new sensitivity were noteworthy.
Before our common era was bisected by COVID, Burgess had warned in his inaugural threat assessment at the start of 2020 that “the extreme right-wing threat is real and it is growing”. However, this warning had been met with rising protest from conservative politicians intent on untethering right-wing extremism from right-wing politics. From our parliaments, our screens, and a sizeable segment of what passes for the news, the nation had learnt – and insisted on using – a certain perceptual shorthand for envisaging who was a “religious extremist” (any Muslim) and who was a “right-wing extremist” (skinhead neo-Nazis). Well before the pandemic, however, we had ample evidence that things weren’t so simple.
In 2021, Burgess framed IMVE in this way: “We are seeing a growing number of individuals and groups that don’t fit on the left–right spectrum at all; instead, they’re motivated by a fear of societal collapse or a specific social or economic grievance or conspiracy. For example, the violent misogynists who adhere to … ‘incel’ ideology fit into this category.” In their ostensible independence from the political spectrum, such individuals and groups were officially atomised in a manner that did not accord with what is known about the enduring relationships between far-right extremism and conspiracist radicalisation.
The Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2019 Global Terrorism Index defined the label “far-right” as referring to “a political ideology that is centred on one or more of the following elements: strident nationalism (usually racial or exclusivist in some fashion), fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, chauvinism, nativism, and xenophobia”. Conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment have long been endemic to these groups. “What is new, however,” wrote Elise Thomas, a researcher with the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, at the start of 2020, “is the ease with which technology enables ideas … and misinformation to cross-pollinate between transnational strands of conspiracies and far-right groups as they mingle in the same online spaces. Recognising the complex, fluid, often symbiotic role which transnational conspiracies play in modern far-right movements will be crucial to addressing the threat from extremists in the years ahead.”
On that November day last year at ASIO headquarters, Burgess explained that the counterterrorism mission was becoming more challenging. He said that the threat from RMVE had moderated, and specifically noted that the capabilities of violent jihadist groups had been degraded, dissipating though not disappearing. Turning to IMVE, he said that while nationalist and racist violent extremism remained a threat, the majority were more likely to focus on recruitment than attack planning for the foreseeable future. Then he turned to those new strains of threat.
Burgess explained that, since 2020, there had been “an increase in extremism fuelled by diverse grievances, conspiracy theories and anti-authority ideologies”. While some individuals had used violent rhetoric at the various anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown protests, and some protests involved violence, ASIO hadn’t identified terrorist acts. “The Australian community remained impressively resilient, and many of the grievance narratives lost momentum as COVID restrictions were eased.”
Reading that in the earliest light of hindsight after Wieambilla, I thought about how, as things began returning to the new normal, some of us had come out the other side more isolated, and enraged, than ever. I thought about the loud narratives that emerged, at speed, about the killings and about the Trains – Stacey, Gareth and Gareth’s brother Nathaniel – who did not have faces the nation had learnt to fear. And what, after all, could be done with that?
In December 2020, with terms of reference from then minister for home affairs Peter Dutton, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security commenced an inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism in Australia. Dutton directed the committee to consider three areas. First: “the nature and extent of, and threat posed by, extremist movements and persons holding extremist views in Australia”, focusing on “the motivations, objectives and capacity for violence of extremist groups, including, but not limited to, Islamist and far right-wing extremist groups, and how those changed during the COVID-19 pandemic”, as well as “the risk to the community of high risk terrorist offenders”. Then: “the geographic spread of these extremist movements and persons in Australia, and their links to international extremist organisations”.
Dutton’s final term of reference set out several issues for specific inquiry. Among potential reforms to terrorist organisation listing laws and the national counterterrorism strategy, the parliamentary inquiry was instructed to specifically consider “the role and influence of radical and extremist groups, which currently fall short of the legislative threshold for proscription, in fostering disharmony in Australia and as a conduit to persons on a pathway to extremism”, as well as “further steps that the Commonwealth could take to disrupt and deter hate speech” and “reinforce social cohesion, counter violent extremism and address the growing diversification of extremist ideology in Australia”.
The inquiry received expert submissions, including from ASIO, Queensland Police Service, Victoria Police, NSW Police Force, Google, Twitter, Facebook, the eSafety Commissioner, and a multidisciplinary research initiative called the Addressing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation to Terrorism (AVERT) Research Network, comprising experts from Australian and international universities “who believe in conducting meaningful and robust research for the public good”.
AVERT promotes evidence-based understanding of violent extremism, the social harms that cause it and the social harms it creates. Its submission cited an FBI assessment from 2019 that “anti-government, identity-based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace over the near term, fostering anti-government sentiment, promoting racial and religious prejudice, increasing political tensions, and occasionally driving both groups and individuals to commit criminal or violent acts”. The AVERT authors noted that the pandemic poured fuel on that fire, spurring the further proliferation of conspiracy theories and networks that, at the time of AVERT’s submission in early 2021, “had already inspired a number of plots, attacks and violations of government lockdown measures”. They observed: “Necessary extensions of government authority and curtailing of individual liberties during an emergency are re-framed by extremists as tools of social control and evidence of authoritarian tendencies and are exploited to push forward narratives of government corruption and illegitimacy.”
Defining the boundaries of these movements is becoming increasingly difficult, the authors explained, because they are becoming less ideologically and organisationally coherent. While modern extremist movements “shift, morph and incorporate various causes at much greater speed, often resulting in ambiguous ideologies and diffuse and impermanent structures”, something that far-right extremists, miscellaneous conspiracist groups and violent jihadist movements share is that they “actively seek to denigrate and undermine Australian democratic, egalitarian and multicultural values”. Each “cultivates a narrow understanding of their ‘in group’ and denigrate those in their ‘out group’, adopting strategies and positions that foster division and confrontation”.
The experts made the case that social cohesion is strong prevention when it comes to addressing the conditions that create vulnerability to radicalisation in the first place. Sustained, adequate investment in community building is “crucial in securing national safety and wellbeing; not only because stronger cohesion leads to a stronger sense of belonging and inclusion, making citizens more resilient to the appeals of violent extremist narratives that try to undermine national belonging, but also because it sends a clear message that government is interested in the overall welfare of communities, rather than in focusing simply on addressing the potential risks they may pose to national security”.
The research on what works in terms of inoculating young people against the appeal of violent extremism is instructive more broadly. Critical factors include: the strength of one’s sense of identity and belonging; the degree of trust in – and access to – resources outside one’s immediate community group; a sense of agency regarding decisions impacting one’s life together with trust in government figures and institutions; and the degree to which violence is normalised as a way of conferring status and respect, or as a legitimate means of conflict resolution. The authors warned, however, that we are currently facing risks to social cohesion “that can threaten our long track record of investing in and benefitting from this critical element of national wellbeing and resilience to the social and political harms of radicalised violence”.
Decades before he was seen dragging his wife by her hair up the stairs to their home, Gareth Daniel Train was a boy shooting rabbits and roos with his younger brother, Nathaniel Charles, around Monto, west of Bundaberg in Queensland. In the narrative that unspooled when A Current Affair interviewed their father, Ronald Train, soon after the killings, Gareth was always a “difficult” child. He was “very volatile, very controlling”, trouble at school, “obsessed with guns and weapons”. Watching that contextless characterisation become gospel through the medium of national television, one had the impression that the problem child had sprung, fully formed, from nowhere.
Ronald Train undertook theological studies after a “spiritual rebirth” in 1985, when Gareth and Nathaniel were around nine and eight years old. He founded his own fundamentalist, evangelical church, the Christian Independent Fellowship of Toowoomba, and was a pastor for 27 years. Train and his wife, Gwenyth, who were married for 49 years before her death, raised their daughter and three sons with what Train described as “certain beliefs, Christian beliefs”.
His church’s “Constitution & Rules” state that appointment of women “to the role of Pastor, Elder or Deacon will never be entertained”. Other beliefs, advocating a world view “based on the infallible Word of God”, are elaborated on in his books: The Bridge to Eternal Life, Protestant Shame, A Walk with Paul through Cultural Minefields and Without Absolutes, God is not God. The latter book refers to “the end times” when “the Son of Man will send angels to gather to himself his elect”, with Train explaining how this scene in the Gospel of Matthew reveals that the elect have been chosen for eternity and that “those outside the company of the elect” are “destined for eternal punishment”. It’s a hopeful, though uncompromising, eschatology, presenting at least the possibility of “eternal life” – if, that is, one accepts that “salvation cannot be found outside the church”. This is implicit for the elder Train in the missionary edict “Jesus must be Lord of all or not Lord at all”, a statement, he argues, that makes his faith incapable of tolerating pluralism.
Train’s latest work, The Truths of Revelation, was published on December 12, 2022, the day on which his two estranged sons, believing COVID was the end of days, killed and were killed.
Queensland Police Service initially declined to label the killings domestic terrorism. That changed on viewing evidence of the Trains’ fundamentalist Christian pre-millennialism, after which the crimes were labelled Australia’s first religiously motivated terrorist attack. This sat awkwardly with the statement, in the police service’s 2021 submission to the parliamentary inquiry, that “the primary threat in Queensland continues to emanate from Religiously Motivated Violent Extremism in the form of a small number of individuals who support a violent interpretation of Islam that is influenced, in part, by overseas terrorist organisations and activities”.
In Mike Burgess’s 2023 threat assessment, he called the killings “an act of politically motivated violence, primarily motivated by a Christian violent extremist ideology”.
Sometimes confusion is its own clarity.
Stacey Christoffel was the type of teenager who sought out, and began attending, a new church of her own, separate from her family. A relative described her to Guardian Australia as quiet, always the odd one out. She met Nathaniel Train at Christian Independent Fellowship. They were still teenagers when they were married there, by his father.
Working as teachers in rural Queensland, Stacey and Nathaniel had their daughter, Madelyn, in 1996. A son followed. There is evidence that Stacey became increasingly estranged from her family following her marriage. In their early twenties, Nathaniel and Gareth ceased contact with their parents. Madelyn has explained that she understood the brothers’ estrangement was related to allegations of childhood sexual abuse both had made against a family friend who has since died.
Stacey and Nathaniel’s marriage ended when Madelyn was two. When she was six, her mother married Gareth. “Gary was the stay-at-home dad,” Madelyn told A Current Affair. “Mum worked very hard her whole life to protect children and she spent her whole career, which spanned over 20 years, as a teacher.” At some point, Madelyn and her brother were sent to boarding school.
An ABC investigation traced the Trains over the years they spent moving around regional and remote Queensland, working short stints at government schools. In 2009, Gareth spent two months as a child safety support officer in the South Burnett region. The next year, the couple were in Quinalow, a tiny town on the Darling Downs, with Stacey teaching at the local school. Nathaniel, meanwhile, was in Far North Queensland, working as principal at the Innisfail East State School. He had, for some time, a solid professional reputation.
If you have not considered the many ways in which we are our own worst enemies, AVERT’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry will be sobering reading. Six of the seven risk areas it cited have nothing to do with threats from violent jihadist extremists. The experts warned about the impact of accelerating right-wing extremism and take-up of conspiracy theories delegitimising democratic rule of law and “casting particular religious, ethnic, racial or political groups as a threat to the Australian ‘identity’ and ‘way of life’ (conceived of as exclusively White and European)”. They warned about the impact of declining levels of trust in government and social institutions. They warned about gaps in information literacy eroding the ability to assess critically certain narratives. They warned about the development and amplification of certain victimhood-based, grievance-fuelled narratives, and a “persisting ‘frontier’ landscape of under-regulated social media platforms” enabling the reinforcement of “hate-based narratives and mis- and dis-information”.
That matched Burgess’s warning about socially harmful forms of exclusivism in his first threat assessment in 2020: “Intolerance based on race, gender and identity, and the extreme political views that intolerance inspires, is on the rise across the Western world in particular. Right-wing extremism has been in ASIO’s sights for some time, but obviously this threat came into sharp, terrible focus last year in New Zealand.” The next year, he stated: “Extreme right-wing propaganda used COVID to portray governments as oppressors, and globalisation, multiculturalism and democracy as flawed and failing.”
The timing of the 2022 election perhaps spared then prime minister Scott Morrison and minister Dutton the inconvenience of public accountability for their government’s role in “fostering disharmony in Australia” and “casting particular groups” as a threat to a strictly Anglo-Australian way of life, through policy and legislative directions such as the concocted moral panic over “African gangs” or the specious Religious Discrimination Bill targeting children for their sexuality. Or for the velocity of their party’s politicisation, as it was happening, of emergency public-health responses to a novel global pandemic responsible for mass death in comparable counties. On the appropriately ironic date of April 1, 2022, after 16 months of work, 19 submissions, 10 supplementary submissions, numerous private briefings and two days of public hearings, the parliamentary committee tabled its two-page interim (and, as it transpired, only) report on the inquiry into extremist movements and radicalisation.
After assuring participants that their evidence had been carefully considered, the report quoted Burgess’s 2021 statement regarding “a growing assortment of individuals with ideological grievances” and reporting that ideological extremism investigations had grown from around one-third of ASIO’s priority counterterrorism caseload to around 40 per cent. It quoted also Burgess’s 2022 statement that the most likely terrorist attack scenario over the next 12 months “continues to be a lone-actor attack”. And then, after noting Burgess’s observations regarding the accelerating radicalisation of minors, the committee abruptly and prematurely concluded its task, stating that although its work on the inquiry had been worthwhile, it was “unable to complete the inquiry during the 46th parliament due to other pressing demands”.
The committee’s lone recommendation was that government consult with the parliamentary joint committee of the 47th parliament on terms of reference for a new inquiry into extremist movements and radicalisation. In response to my query, nearly one year later, as to whether there are plans to complete the initial inquiry’s work, and whether the government has considered the submissions received, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs stated that the government agreed with the committee’s recommendation, and will refer the matter for inquiry with updated terms of reference. “The Australian government notes the importance of the PJCIS inquiry to the national security of Australia as the threats from extremist movements and radicalisation continue to evolve,” they said. At the time of writing, we have yet to hear news of its resurrection.
Time may be a flat circle when it comes to operationalising the expert evidence presented to Australian public inquiries, which is dangerous because the issues are urgent. Professor Michele Grossman, a co-author of AVERT’s submission and the research chair in diversity and community resilience at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, calls social media “the turbocharger” of radicalisation. “It’s changed everything – the speed, the scope, the depth,” she tells me. People talk about the online rabbit hole, but she urges me to think of it like a funnel narrowing from the fairly innocuous broadcast level, which uses nothing as identifiable as swastikas, to the interactive spaces of social media and then into encrypted platforms, where other beliefs can be discreetly raised. “From a psychological and cognitive point of view, the narrower somebody’s networks get, the fewer challenges to their own ways of thinking and feeling they need to navigate.”
Having one’s ideas challenged is part of living in a pluralist, democratic society, Grossman explains. However, online echo chambers are free from cautionary friction, so confirmation bias neatly dispatches any cognitive dissonance. That’s a dark and dangerous place for people to be if they are either moving themselves, or being moved by others, towards very harmful thinking and behaviours, she says. “This is the clear and present danger we face.”
In 2011, Gareth and Stacey Train moved to the outback Queensland town of Camooweal near the Northern Territory border, population 187. Memories of their behaviour outlasted them. Stacey invited co-workers at the state school over for tea, a rare occasion for the couple who would elsewhere be described as never being social. “The first thing I noticed,” a colleague told the ABC about that visit, “was they had their pig dogs inside the house in cages and Gareth had a big collection of hunting knives and he then told us he was a social worker.” Locals began finding the disembowelled carcasses of wild pigs near the swimming hole, frequented by children. Gareth would hunt there, running around with the dogs as they chased after pigs, which he then gutted as they screamed. Or he would string the pigs up in his yard, which backed onto the primary school, butchering them while the blood and offal streamed onto the school oval.
A former student described a backlash among parents to an anti-bullying policy said to have been instituted by Stacey, which met student complaints with detention. His mother described Gareth, who didn’t teach at the school, “dominating the parents and friends committee”. Another parent, Karen Sullivan, told the ABC that Gareth insinuated himself into the school, becoming the secretary, gardener and cleaner. He physically disciplined students, twisting their arms into an arm lock and marching them home if he heard them swearing. She described him as a “control freak”, sitting in on parent-teacher meetings or standing outside the room, always there with Stacey, who was silent. Locals remembered him driving too fast and too close to pedestrians. Or sitting in a chair watching his dogs mate, and letting them out to attack other dogs. By 2014, parents had made numerous complaints. Sullivan contacted Education Queensland authorities and local politicians about the issues, and asked a local priest to see if he could help. Parents began removing their children from the school.
This was the period in which a female co-worker witnessed Gareth drag Stacey by her hair into their house, thinking “it’s none of my business” and that it was best not to interfere. Fear, too, likely played a role. Guardian Australia reported that Stacey’s mother always called her mobile on her birthday, hanging up if Gareth answered. There are ample indications from Gareth’s behaviour of coercive control as well as physical domestic violence. In that light, Stacey’s agency in her first marriage ending – frequently reported as “Stacey leaving Nathaniel for Gareth”, a “bizarre love triangle” or “love tryst” – and in her relationship with Gareth, as well as in leaving each of her jobs and each of her homes, and in her participation in the killings themselves, starts to take on greyer hues.
Thinking about the erosion of public trust signified by those slogans in Tara and online, I ask Deakin University political sociologist Associate Professor Josh Roose, another co-author of AVERT’s submission, whether there is a direct relationship between, on the one hand, the proliferation of conspiracist movements and, on the other, punitive populist politicking and media narratives – that is, the socially divisive, fabricated threat messaging that stokes the fears it purports to address in order to capitalise off them through votes, clicks or ratings.
“We’ve got to be careful not to talk about direct correlations, because there are many factors and it’s difficult to measure,” Roose tells me. “But if we’re talking more broadly in terms of observations, it really is the Murdoch mass media and the proliferation of a hardline right-wing approach where they’re pursuing a particular political agenda … We’ve seen this form of attack journalism dominate in the US with Fox News, and that’s influenced the Australian media landscape. Sky News has adopted the same tactics. But Australia’s had a long history of provocative, polarising, often bigoted figures on our talkback radio stations who aim to inflame the masses, and to some extent that precedes the rise of Fox News.”
Clips from traditional media form part of the online exchange economy. “We’ve got to look at it as going hand in hand with what we’re seeing on social media and the rise of the alt-right,” says Roose. “These aren’t skin-headed Nazis … They’re often suited, moderately educated, adept at using memes. They’ve been quick to exploit the capacities of a libertarian space on the internet to spread their views and gain followers … Compared to Fox, social media is far more interactive. It’s the capacity of Alex Jones’s Infowars and others, such as Steve Bannon’s War Room, that really bring people in and make them feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.”
Encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram allow people to meet and livestream. You don’t need an expensive studio, Roose explains, you can do it in your basement and gain an international following of several hundred people. Platforms such as TikTok allow the broadcasting of pretty extreme material and ideas but in a catchy manner, and they’re often couched in the language of wellness or love. “So, you see a merging of ideas as people at home make sense of this material they’re accessing, and then form their own ideas. We’re seeing this rapid pseudo-intellectual evolution, where people are trying to take different sources and make sense of them without any frameworks, without any critical thinking – although they believe to their core that they’re being critical, that they’re asking questions.”
In 2015, the Train couple left Camooweal and Stacey took a role at a school in Happy Valley, a suburb of the western Queensland mining town of Mount Isa. While there, they spent $95,000 on a 43-hectare bush block on Wains Road in Wieambilla, with a two-bedroom, weatherboard house, water tanks and a dam. The next year, Gareth resigned from the education department and the couple moved to an Indigenous community in Cape York where Stacey became principal at Pormpuraaw State School. A community worker told ABC that families became increasingly unhappy with the Trains, who left after about a year. They moved to their place in the Wieambilla blocks. Stacey became head of curriculum at Tara Shire State College. Madelyn would spend her holidays with them there until COVID hit in 2020.
Nathaniel Train held principal roles at various schools in north Queensland. He was principal of Yorkeys Knob State School, on the outskirts of Cairns, where he posed with two students for a local paper, smiling in a Santa hat, baubles in his beard. The photo of that “good natured”, “mild mannered” man, is now immortalised online alongside the faces of the people he killed.
Facebook’s submission to the ill-fated joint parliamentary inquiry indicated that we remain, startlingly, at the beginning of what might be considered adequate regulation of a technology that has been fully integrated into daily life for at least 15 years. “In the last 12 months alone,” Facebook explained, “we have made a number of important changes…” These included a new “hateful stereotypes” policy, prohibiting claims that deny or distort the Holocaust; disallowing ads that claim a group with “protected characteristics” is a threat to the safety, health or survival of others; and expanding its advertising policies to better protect immigrants and asylum seekers from hateful claims. “In August 2020, we expanded our dangerous organisations policy to capture ‘militarised social movements’ and content relating to violence-inducing conspiracy theories,” Facebook continued. “We have just begun to implement these policies.” Too late, one would be forgiven for thinking. However, Facebook’s “encouragement” of the inquiry “to consider not just how to prevent the violent manifestations of extremism, but also how to combat hate as the root cause for extremism” was not mere blame-shifting. It reflected the fact that reducing vulnerability to radicalisation leading to extremist violence relies on more than social media regulation alone.
Josh Roose elaborates on those deeper layers. We’ve had nearly a decade of Coalition governments continuously deploying divisive tactics to maintain power – binary concepts of “us and them” and culture wars that keep voters focused on emotionally charged topics that distract from allocation of resources. “Really quite skilfully exploited, in many respects,” Roose says, “but the last few years of Morrison’s government – the chaotic, disorganised mess, the absolute lack of accountability which wouldn’t fly in any Australian workplace – amongst a population that still has a conception of citizenship and responsibility, many became quite cynical about mainstream politics in a way that they haven’t for quite some time.” So, he explains, we had a perfect storm of that occurring alongside COVID and lockdown measures around the country.
“But you’ve got to also look historically at the deep-seated antecedents of where we are,” Roose says. “Emerging out of World War Two, we had this social welfare approach, and while that largely benefited white working men, it was grounded in a sense of the importance of looking after people and community, and it had a Christian socialist base.” Eventually, however, a different school of economics and a different conception of government ascended, he says. After half a century of free-market economics, there’s been increasing emphasis on individual actors – represented, for instance, by the casualisation of labour – and a diminution in forms of communal life that had offered solidarity and belonging. Both union membership and formal attendance at church have dropped from around 50 per cent to under 10 per cent, Roose says, by way of example.
“We’ve seen a service economy emerge in place of physical labour. We’ve seen women, in a paradoxical way, do better under neoliberalism because it’s about who can do the job in an intellectual, service-based economy. So, women’s rights have become easier to pursue, albeit nowhere near fulfilled. We see this emergence, on the one hand, of a working class that no longer has the status it once had, and then, on the other, a white-collar workforce – in particular, men who once had that guaranteed middle-management job for life – having to face significant competition from women, given the elimination of barriers like the lack of maternity leave. So, you see this emergence of a resentment – a sense of stunted trajectory, of stunted social status. [American sociologist] Michael Kimmel refers to it as ‘aggrieved entitlement’. But it’s also important to understand that many people don’t necessarily understand that they feel aggrieved or entitled, they just feel like they’re missing something.”
Roose describes a great hollowing out: of public institutions due to the free market approach; of people without the holding environments of community; of work that no longer has meaning for many, at the same time as they’re being told they need a third job to pay for rising interest rates. “So, they’re going online where they see these neat narratives telling them who’s to blame and why they no longer recognise the world. That’s attractive to young people, but it also explains why older people are increasingly being attracted to these movements.”
The Nine newspapers’ “How to make sense of the cost of living crunch” series reported that since late 2020 the cost of milk, sausages and soap has risen. Cost of living, housing affordability and unemployment currently rank higher in suicide risks than social isolation and relationship breakdown. In March, after 10 successive interest rate rises, the Reserve Bank governor, Philip Lowe, met with Suicide Prevention Australia, the peak body whose data showed 46 per cent of Australians reporting elevated distress levels from cost-of-living pressures. Suicide Prevention’s chief executive, Nieves Murray, said that the number of people seeking help, while positive, has also “increased pressure on already stretched frontline suicide prevention services”.
About those services: wherever you find yourself around the nation, the mental healthcare system is in crisis. There is a severe staff shortage. There was a lack of accessible psychology services even before the current government halved the allocation of Medicare-subsidised annual sessions. Over-burdened emergency departments, and the police, are not just the frontline of acute mental healthcare, they are often the entirety of it. While most people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, the latest Victoria Police counterterrorism strategy states that “there has been an increase in the presence of mental disorders among individuals that undertake acts of terrorist violence. This is particularly true among lone actor terrorists.”
“Most of the ones who move towards violence have a traumatic background,” Matthew Quinn tells me. Quinn is founder and chief executive of the far-right disengagement group Exit Australia, one of the only organisations in Australia offering community-based intervention and support for people radicalised to extremist violence. He has observed high rates of childhood neglect and trauma, particularly child sexual abuse, among those he supports, often funding that work from his own pocket. “They’ve never really had any help,” he says, noting the absence of safe adults or accessible services in their histories. “That individual goes out there looking for that help from somewhere else … and they get picked up by these [far-right] groups eventually, or they find them online.
“It’s not like they’re looking for a conspiracy theory – they’re just looking for a community.”
Nathaniel Train and his partner taught at Trinity Beach State School, another coastal suburb of Cairns, before moving, in 2020, to Walgett Community College Primary School in northern New South Wales, where he became executive principal and she took a teaching role. The school had faced complex challenges. “Almost 10 years ago, then Education Minister Adrian Piccoli denounced the government’s neglect of Walgett, and rural schools like it, where most students are Indigenous,” Jordan Baker wrote, in The Sydney Morning Herald, in April 2022. “He said Walgett Community College’s ruinous buildings made it the worst school in the state.”
Little is known about how Nathaniel perceived himself in relation to the Walgett community. He would later be described by his partner as being “of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander appearance”. In 2020, his sister featured in an article in the National Indigenous Times about her teaching in remote NSW communities. She said: “We lost our heritage as a family, my Uncle found it. Myself and my Dad and my Uncle are really proud of who we are, it is not accepted in our family. My brother is starting to embrace who we are as a people.” It is unclear which of her three brothers she was referring to.
At Walgett, changes Nathaniel implemented were not universally well received. In 2020, he suffered a heart attack at the school, which Madelyn attributed to stress, and he was revived by co-workers. He took leave to recover but, after not complying with the vaccine mandate, never returned. After resigning the position in August 2021, his mental health deteriorated. He made complaints to the NSW Department of Education and the Ombudsman about matters concerning the school and the level of support he had received. He reached out to One Nation MP Mark Latham with his grievances. (Comments Latham later made about issues facing the school sparked protests when he visited the town in July 2022, with teachers holding a sign that said, “Mark Latham not welcome on First Nations land”.)
By December 2021, Nathaniel was no longer in Walgett: his partner reported him missing to NSW police. An alert issued over social media stated that police and family held serious concerns for his welfare. He had become what the Brisbane Times described as, “a man of no fixed address”.
If the nature and frequency of Gareth Train’s online activity during the time leading up to his brother’s disappearance in Walgett is anything to go by, he was relating to the world in an increasingly paranoid way, busily posting on the sovereign citizen and conspiracy websites he had been visiting since 2019. The ABC reported that he “had long held some extremist views about the role of government, religious groups and police”, which deepened during the lockdowns. He believed Port Arthur was a “false-flag operation”, and that governments were running re-education camps. He wrote about the years he spent building an ark, “preparing to survive tomorrow”. On a private forum, he posted: “I missed out on my formal education due to my critical evaluations of teaching practices and resulting conflicts. I returned to university as a mature age student and studied social welfare. In doing so I discovered the religions of education and psychology. I soon learned that their high priests were the same indoctrinating snakes as the church high priests.”
To get a closer understanding of the lived experience underlying the psychological, academic and “grey” literature on radicalisation to extremist views and violence, I spoke with people around the nation who had experienced someone close to them becoming radicalised over the past few years. Different ages, economic backgrounds, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, religions – they appeared to have little in common apart from answering my call-out.
They told me about witnessing a rapidly accelerating total fixation on QAnon or Big Pharma or the sovereign citizen movement or the men’s movement or the belief that Michelle Obama is a man or that Donald Trump is a genius or that JFK is alive. They told me about watching a sudden absolute faith in the curative excellence of essential oils or crystals or veganism or the carnivore diet, or in the geo-engineered alteration of the sun or the biological weaponisation of 5G, or that 5G was faked or that the Challenger disaster was faked or that deep fakes are real or that COVID-19 was faked or that it was deliberately manufactured as part of a plan for totalising governmental control, or that the Earth is flat or a hollow globe or that, irrespective of the planet’s shape and mass, it is ruled by a secret elite of lizard people including, but not limited to, Jewish people, or that the Holocaust was fake or at least not as bad as everyone claims.
I heard repeatedly that many of these tendencies had begun in their friend or family member in the years preceding the pandemic. And that the timeline of the person’s investment in their particular conviction matched a growing fixation on the exclusive veracity of YouTube or Facebook or Fox News or Sky News or the Daily Mail or Pauline Hanson or Mark Latham or Andrew Bolt or Andrew Tate or Alex Jones or Joe Rogan or Jordan Peterson.
Aside from their rejection of commonly agreed matters of fact and standards of proof, something the holders of these discordant beliefs shared was a conviction that everything was going according to a dark plan – an almost touching faith in top-down efficiency that might cause anyone who has worked in, or with, government to do a little spit-take. But that would be a mistake, both cruel and unwise, because coursing beneath that conviction was a molten river of human pain in which any or all of us could drown.
In each story shared with me about a radicalised parent, sibling, childhood friend, spouse, neighbour or colleague, there was unresolved trauma in that person’s history. There was childhood physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, alcoholic parents and/or poverty that constrained housing, educational or employment choices. There were abusive or addicted partners. Discrimination, workplace accidents, persistent financial insecurity. There was untreated PTSD, developmental trauma, intergenerational trauma, relational trauma, major depression, chronic anxiety or bipolar disorder. There was resentment about the gap between what one had been culturally groomed to expect from life and what was reasonably attainable. In every story, there was unaddressed shame, shock, pain, fear and rage – that is, grief.
The commonalities reminded me of something a GP described to me at the end of 2021, about a small sample of patients who’d been adamant the vaccine was part of a conspiracy. Most held strong religious or spiritual beliefs, a conviction that our present existence is but a prelude to a more glorious one. Also, they had limited education, low-paid work with little control over their days and some degree of untreated mental illness. The women had experienced abusive relationships and childhood trauma. Given that many with those characteristics don’t hold such radicalised views, the doctor speculated that those factors were perhaps less determinative than who these people had turned to for trustworthy information, and why.
American psychoanalyst Joseph Lee once made the following observation about the link between certain experiences of trauma and a particularly insidious form of gullibility. “We see this in our practice all the time: people who are traumatised, in order to survive the trauma, wind up being alienated from their instincts because, often, the traumagenic environment, or the parent, or the authority figure, is providing a world view that is false, but it becomes so dangerous for the child to disagree with the falsehood that they have to learn to abandon their own instincts in favour of aligning with the more powerful, yet damaging and abusing, system or person.
“So when that becomes a habit of survival, even many decades later when people are in more benign circumstances … they still don’t trust or have access to their own instincts, which would give them at least some kind of gut sense of whether they’re in danger, or considering something that’s going to harm them, because they’ve been subjected to harm for a long time and told that it isn’t harm.”
“There was a belief,” Queensland’s deputy police commissioner Tracy Linford explained, in a February update about the Trains’ motivations, “that Christ will return to the Earth for a thousand days and provide peace and prosperity, but it will be preceded by an era, or a period of time, of tribulation, widespread destruction and suffering.”
It’s a belief system known as premillennialism. As Deakin University’s Josh Roose explained on Guardian Australia’s Full Story podcast, premillennialism – an offshoot of Christian evangelicalism – is a relatively recent American phenomenon revolving around “the end of days”, when the good will ascend to heaven and the bad will descend to hell. This can be understood metaphorically, but the radicalised seek to literally enact that battle. Regardless of the flavour of faith, if you look at fundamentalist forums online, “there’s an attempt to get advice about how to do every part of your life”, Roose said. “It’s all embracing … How should I act and what language should I use in certain situations? It’s an attempt to live as closely to God as they believe is possible.” Fixated on the black letter of scriptural authority, fundamentalism offers the comfort of certainty.
The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described how people can be drawn to such ideologies in his 1941 book Escape from Freedom (later re-published as The Fear of Freedom). The book elaborated, with the muscular precision of a ballet dancer, the psycho-social environment that enabled the rise of Nazism, and it did so as the world watched that machine murder people in their millions.
Fromm explained that in societies that fail to provide sufficiently supportive socioeconomic conditions for everyone to reach their potential – through adequate education, meaningful work and healthy forms of collective life – there will be those ungrounded by the burdens inevitably attending personal agency and responsibility. When confronted with intractable realities such as doubt, failure, fear and the discomfiting solitude that attends certain exercises of internal moral authority, a critical mass of those people will embrace safety-seeking behaviours instead, specifically: authoritarianism (which offers a sense of order in exchange for submission to the infantilising control of a parentified leader or all-powerful idea), destructiveness (the annihilation of that which cannot be controlled) and conformity (loyalty to group norms above critical thought). Fromm’s book was as much about belonging as it was about freedom, describing “the need to be related to the world outside one’s self, the need to avoid aloneness”.
Significantly, this relatedness to others is not identical with physical contact. “An individual may be alone in a physical sense, for many years and yet he may be related to ideas, values, or, at least, social patterns that give him a feeling of communion and ‘belonging’,” Fromm wrote. “On the other hand, he may live among people and yet be overcome with an utter feeling of isolation, the outcome of which, if it transcends a certain limit, is the state of insanity … This lack of relatedness to values, symbols, patterns we may call moral aloneness.” In Fromm’s conception, physical aloneness becomes unbearable only if it also implies moral aloneness.
Fromm didn’t describe it as such, but in its quarantining effect and intolerable painfulness, the racing heart of “moral aloneness” seems to be shame – that primal terror, less of being apart from the group and more of being judged unworthy of belonging to it. “To feel completely alone and isolated,” Fromm wrote, “leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death.”
Those I spoke with about the radicalisation of a friend or loved one repeatedly conveyed that “trying to talk them out of anything with logic was having the opposite impact”. Many described how the person’s language changed until it felt like a script. That reminded me of another foundational social psychology text, Leon Festinger’s A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957): “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” The reason why those who spoke with me were unable to sway their loved ones on their convictions using logic is because, to the loved ones, those conversations weren’t about their ideas, they were about their identity – specifically group identity. We see what we need to see, what the psyche is able to integrate. As Gestalt therapy’s field theory puts it, “the need organises the field”. We are wired to prefer the false but warm safety of belonging over cold hard facts. And when the two are in contradiction at the levels at which we currently find them, it is a sign that something is deeply wrong.
“This is an outlier,” Nationals leader David Littleproud told The Project, days after the Wieambilla killings. “And I don’t think any amount of scrutiny would’ve found what’s happened here.” The forthcoming coronial inquest will provide evidence to support or disprove that assertion. Either way, outliers have been, and will again be, responsible for mass death. The pressing issue is how we can address the conditions that lead to extremist violence, given that, when it comes to domestic terrorism, no security or police agency can be omniscient or omnipotent. Submissions to the joint parliamentary inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism, which had been in the government’s possession for more than a year at the time of the killings, repeatedly emphasised that the responsibility for addressing those conditions that lead to extremist violence is a shared one, requiring, at the very least, a whole of government approach.
The 2016 Stocktake Research Project, commissioned by the Victorian government to analyse the evidence about the role of social cohesion and community resilience in redressing the risks of socially harmful forms of exclusivism, including violent extremism, stated that: “Policy-related factors, including policymaking, political leadership and rhetoric, have been identified in the literature as contributing to reducing (or fuelling) levels of prejudice or racist behaviour, including by setting standards of social norms and legitimacy.” In federal parliament, however, the loudest concerns have seemed less evidence-based and more partisan.
When Mike Burgess appeared before Senate estimates two weeks before the Wieambilla killings, the same day as his press conference with home affairs, Liberal senator Alex Antic put this to him: “ASIO talked about how right-wing groups were able to use COVID-19 restrictions as propaganda to further embed anti-government sentiment by betraying the government as overreaching. It also made some comments about the use of globalisation, multiculturalism and democracy as being a flawed concept … Does ASIO take the position that, for example, those that believe there are flaws in globalisation and multiculturalism are right-wing extremists?”
Burgess replied that ASIO now used the term ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE), and that while he was okay with categorising some extremists, such as those with neo-Nazi ideology, as right-wing, ASIO tries “to stay out of the political assignment” because the threat of violence is its principal concern.
Antic required further elaboration.
“Is the concept of an anti-government sentiment in itself an extremist position in ASIO?” the senator asked.
“It can be extreme,” Burgess replied, reiterating that ASIO focuses on “people who are extreme in views and think violence is the answer”.
Antic required further elaboration.
“In the case of people that, for example, were protesting six-month lockdowns under the Andrews government and did so passionately, were those people flagged broadly as extremist groups?”
“No,” Burgess replied. “We were watching that because we were looking for signs of violent extremists, where you’d have politically motivated violence.”
Antic required further elaboration.
“I have seen in the past, historically, a lot of assertations about right-wing extremism. I know you use different language now. What is the reason that we never hear about left-wing groups? Whenever I’m out on the street, all I see is Extinction Rebellion gluing themselves to stuff.”
Burgess replied that the predominant rising threat is “national socialist or Neo-Nazis”. “We have other individuals across the spectrum … but they are much lower in terms of prevalence and certainly not currently appearing in those groups that we have concerns that they think violence is the answer or have the potential to attract people that go to violence at this stage.”
Antic required further elaboration.
“What assurances can you give here that ASIO is not specifically targeting or monitoring people who simply have differing views to their government of the day?”
Burgess stated, again, that ASIO investigations are based on the likelihood of violence not political views.
Antic required further elaboration.
“I have a question that relates to reports from the US that Facebook and the FBI have been collaborating with Facebook employees reporting users who posted anti-government or anti-authority sentiments, and then the FBI acquired data on those individuals. Does ASIO work with social media companies in a similar fashion to spy on Australians who might have anti-government views?”
“Again,” Burgess replied, “we would be focusing on individuals who actually think violence is the answer. Where we work with social media companies or companies that provide data, we do that lawfully.” He was perhaps experiencing a strange déjà vu. This use of Senate estimate’s time – meant to provide the opportunity to discuss urgent matters of national security and public safety – recalled a similar episode in March 2020.
In light of Burgess’s then-recent update emphasising the escalating threat from the “extremist right-wing”, NSW Labor senator Kristina Keneally asked him about drivers of that growing threat and whether plans existed for a unit dedicated to it, and about the lack of formal monitoring systems, and mentioned her own consultations with experts regarding the limits of proscription when it comes to preventing violence from known and emerging terrorist groups. Queensland One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts, on the other hand, preferred to discuss a certain bafflement regarding the terms “left” and “right”. “[T]o me,” Roberts said, “Hitler was [described] as someone from the right, when he was a socialist. In fact, most of the dictators and most of the mass murderers of the last century were actually socialists or communists. So ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ gets fuzzy. Perhaps a better terminology would be to do with control versus freedom, in terms of the people who are seeking to take away freedoms…”
Roberts appeared satisfied with Burgess’s clarification that ASIO’s concern was with the threat of violence but the point was immediately resuscitated. “I am concerned about the use of terminology of ‘right’,” said Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, echoing recent comments by then minister Dutton. “‘Right’ is associated with conservativism in this country, and there are many people of conservative background who take exception to being charred with the brush [sic], and I think that you do understand that your comments – particularly when you refer to them solely as right-wing – has the potential to offend a lot of Australians.”
Burgess replied that his intention was not to offend innocent people, and restated a previous comment that perhaps the “unfortunate” terminology could be revisited.
“My point is that both fascism and socialism have their antecedents in communism,” Fierravanti-Wells continued, “and I think that it’s important for those distinctions to be made. And I think that Minister Dutton’s comments mopping up after this, is very clear and that is, it doesn’t really matter what spectrum they’re on: if it’s extremism, it’s extremism. And I think you would equally agree that there have been instances in this country where there have been so-called right-wing extremists protesting with flags which denominate [sic] – whether it’s the BLF flag [presumably referring to the Southern Cross flag’s association with the former Builders Labourers Federation] or other flags – have indicated that their politics are not necessarily right-wing, they were actually left-wing. So, I think that the time has come, director-general, especially from you, to ensure that the terminology you use is very careful.”
History was relevant that day, though not at all in the way Roberts and Fierravanti-Wells understood it. They were speaking just before the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch killings, where Brenton Tarrant, a white Australian far-right violent extremist, livestreamed his murder of 51 people, aged three to 77 years old, in two New Zealand mosques. Those victims, that terrorist and decades of tarring Australian Muslim communities with the same brush were ignored by the questioning in estimates, which mistook wounded reactivity for the post-Christchurch reality, in which the specific dangers of alt-right threat messaging could no longer be normalised within the bounds of safety or sanity.
Still, ASIO’s terminology change was soon implemented, with resources devoted to the requisite adjustments and explanations (an efficiency that the federal parliament has not yet matched in relation to the substantive concerns of the ill-fated inquiry). Burgess told Guardian Australia that political pressure did not impact ASIO’s decision-making process in that regard. However, the then Coalition government responsible for ASIO’s funding had repeatedly made its priorities clear.
The phrase “so-called right-wing extremism” migrated into Burgess’s 2021 threat assessment. He used it, however, to explain that it had been in ASIO’s sights for many years, that the previous year he’d called out what they’d been seeing and that it was taking up an increasing share of the priority counterterrorism caseload. “The face of the threat is also evolving,” he said, “and this poses challenges as we seek to identify and monitor it. People often think we’re talking about skinheads with swastika tattoos and jackboots roaming the backstreets like extras from Romper Stomper, but it’s no longer that obvious. Today’s ideological extremist is more likely to be motivated by a social or economic grievance than national socialism. More often than not, they are young, well-educated, articulate and middle class – and not easily identified.”
Refusing vaccination, Stacey Train resigned from the school in Tara on December 16, 2021. Nathaniel was last seen in New South Wales that day. Madelyn has said she thought he’d taken a break, gone bush to reconnect with God. She was unaware he was by then with Stacey and Gareth in Wieambilla.
“Then they pulled out from society, really…” prompted the reporter interviewing Madelyn for A Current Affair at the Wieambilla property, bullet holes pocking the windows.
“They sorta gave up,” Madelyn said, with something that felt like defiant compassion. “Society gave up on them. So they did the same.”
In our conversation, Professor Michele Grossman and I discuss the lockdown protests that took place around the country. Grossman notes the protesters’ fear that the emergency measures would become permanent. “My question,” she says, “is why did people think that Australia was going to be susceptible to that? … Where did that sense of fragility in our democracy come from, that lack of trust in the state to roll back those measures? Why were people frightened? I’m not sure of what the source of that is, but I do know that it was that fear that made them vulnerable to the exhortation of people on the far right who were amplifying and whipping up that fear. If you’re looking for the place where they got their hooks in, it’s the fear place. They might have been angry, and they might have been frustrated, but mostly they were scared.
“COVID became an absolute bellwether for trial and error by disinformation actors to see how far they could get in telling a whole bunch of porkies to people about COVID: about the origins of COVID, the effects of COVID, treatments for COVID … the sinister intent of COVID, you name it.”
Some of this was innocent misinformation – people picking things up without malicious intent – but there was also disinformation, the deliberate stirring of discord. “And it was definitely designed to further divide, polarise, sow conflict, sow distrust. And a lot of it succeeded.”
On my 233rd day of staying at home during Melbourne’s lockdowns, as the pandemic’s Delta variant swirled around us, I was refreshing news sites. It was September 21, 2021, and images of the city showed a seething stream of somewhere between 1000 and 2000 unmasked, predominately male forms. The gathering came off the back of another protest that police described as one of the most violent the city had experienced in 20 years. What began as members of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union protesting vaccine mandates on building sites morphed into a riotous mix of anti-vaccination protesters, anti-lockdown protesters, aggrieved individuals and far-right extremists. People might very well have not known who they were marching alongside. And that was the point.
A group had congregated at the CFMEU building, where they had smashed the door down the day before, and marched to Parliament House, where they clashed with riot police. They marched on, chanting “Fuck the jab” and “Fuck Dan Andrews” and “Fake news” and “Freedom”. They continued out of the city, down the West Gate Freeway, onto the West Gate Bridge, blocking traffic in both directions, and leaving people nervous in their cars. The previous day, protesters had overrun police – three were hospitalised with broken bones, and journalists were assaulted and sprayed with what appeared to be urine.
The “freedom protests” continued. In mid November, the Victorian government introduced legislation to replace the state of emergency from which it had derived the power to enforce public health orders. The democratic aims of peaceful protesters concerned by elements of the bill were co-opted by what The Age described as “a small but noisy extremist element”. On Monday night, November 15, 2021, a full-sized gallows – not the only one seen during the protests – was paraded past Parliament House, as the crowd chanted “Kill Dan Andrews!”
The next day, the head of the United Australia Party, Craig Kelly, spoke to the protesters, telling them the nation was governed “by medical bureaucrats that are part of a mad, insane cult”. State Liberal MP Bernie Finn, who had recently shared an image of Labor premier Daniel Andrews doctored to look like Hitler, posted a selfie with protesters, and captioned it: “a couple thousand of my closest friends”. State Liberal MP Craig Ondarchie also mingled, posting, “Out thanking these wonderful Victorians, outside their house – the People’s House, who have had a gutfull [sic] of Daniel Andrews controlling their lives, their happiness, their freedom.” Shadow ministers Nick Wakeling and Roma Britnell also put in an appearance.
Afterwards, Josh Roose wrote in The Conversation that “Australian democracy is facing one of the greatest threats it has ever known”, if developments in the United States were any measure. “As unlikely as it seems, at this point, what we really need is a bipartisan political approach that addresses legitimate concerns while shutting down extremist and violent activity. The two have become so entangled, it is by no means an easy task, but it is an essential one.”
Since 2020, we had seen that small but significant sector of the population morph into a crowd both greater and lesser than the sum of its parts, and which follows its own laws exclusively. We saw Australians co-opt the political imagery and language of other countries, other times. They marched under Australian flags, Southern Cross flags, Red Ensign flags, Union Jacks and American flags, flown upside down or right-side up, or saying “Don’t tread on me”. Among them, there were parents pushing prams. There was the greying, pot-bellied white guy frozen in a Nazi salute outside the Shrine of Remembrance. There were MAGA red caps and gladiator helmets and bike helmets and soft woollen beanies knitted with care and at least one papal tiara. And, everywhere, signs: “Covid Hoax brought to you by Satan!”, “Communism – you masked for it!”, “Stop legal international terrorism”, “Pandemic #2 5G Untested!!!”, “Corona Hoax 1984”, “Unvaxxed sperm is the next bitcoin”, “This all ends when we say no!!”. While Melbourne’s lockdowns were unique in degree and duration, such signs popped up all across the nation. In January 2022, from Cairns to Broome, they were out again for a “worldwide rally for freedom”.
The effect of watching the protests was familiar. It was like scrolling social media: a red-hot stream of undifferentiated information that threatened to overwhelm one’s powers of concentration and discernment. In my feed, for instance, in the space of one minute, I will see a friend’s child, a book launch, a selfie by a stranger taken while crying, a men’s rights influencer demonstrating breath work, speculation by “Victoria Freedom Keepers” as to whether the World Health Organization’s pandemic treaty will “allow the WHO to become our governing body despite our constitution”, victims of an American school shooting, a smoothie recipe, and the news that a young mother I follow has died. The medium remains the message. And that message evokes horror both in the familiar sense and that used by philosopher Julia Kristeva in her “Essay on Abjection”, where she connected its visceral repulsion to the perpetually hovering threat of primal chaos, that place where we will be returned should the boundaries we depend on for order and meaning collapse.
Someone whose husband once dragged her by her hair effectively experienced lockdown on a different planet from someone who spent that time cosily making sourdough. In a world not known for its fairness, we each have a duty to question the conditions that unjustly constrain our lives, and curiosity, as Nabokov put it, is the purest form of insubordination. But there was nothing from those protesters loudly sanctifying a particular strain of “personal responsibility” that indicated curiosity was a guiding value. There was deep fear and distrust, but those quaking primary energies wore armour. Coursing through the motley fellowship of those protests and the bizarre buffet of justifications for them online was the charge of oppositional defiance, and it was aimed not towards medicine as science, or science as method, but at the legitimating values of democracy itself.
In an era-defining moment where we were each called upon to protect ourselves in order to protect others, arguments regarding the common good did not have the desired effect on certain swathes of the population. In those umwelts, the social contract did not give rise to the expected social responsibility because there had perhaps been an insufficient experience of social rights. “Doing one’s own research” appeared to stand for the purposive hunt to confirm the resentful, wounded hope that the authorities who had, at some point, failed to deliver assistance or protection, or entitlements real or imagined, were themselves unworthy, moronic or shit. And who could impugn that hope when our society has shown, in significant respects, a hostility towards social equity characteristic of the Middle Ages? A place where, instead of feudalism’s commonly accepted justifications, one continuously sees only their diametric opposite: photographic proof of the ease of success, influence, personal change, fame, wealth, health, likes, love, and one’s entitlement to all of it beamed directly into a dark bedroom. A place where a certain sector of the population is continuously warned that they are in danger, are being usurped, have been robbed, by identifiable Others whose socially constructed menace has been commodified by media and weaponised in our parliaments. Which takes us back to the psychological literature framing one’s valency for radicalisation to extremism – and violent extremism – in terms of unmet needs for safety, autonomy, dignity and belonging.
Eight months after Mike Burgess told the nation that an ideologically motivated attack, “most likely by a lone actor or small cell rather than a recognised group”, remained plausible, and that extremists were “seeking to acquire weapons for self-defence, as well as stockpiling ammunition and provisions”, Nathaniel Train, wearing camouflage, drove a black Toyota LandCruiser loaded with guns and military knives onto the Boongangar Bridge over the Macintyre River, in north-western New South Wales, and, with some help from an angle grinder, through the Queensland–NSW border gate.
It was December 2021, and the land border had recently reopened to those who had been vaccinated. That, of course, did not include Nathaniel. A local farmer told the ABC that Nathaniel had tried to ram through the gates before cutting his way in, and that he’d gotten into strife on a flooded road after entering Queensland. “Old mate … basically drowned the engine,” the farmer said. “He … started ditching all the stuff out of the car and throwing it into the creek. I thought, That looks sketchy.”
Nathaniel described himself to one of the farmer’s workers as an anti-vaxxer who’d lost his job because he couldn’t get vaccinated, said he hadn’t been able to see family in Queensland. The farmer towed the stranded LandCruiser into his yard because it was blocking the road. Nathaniel asked the farmer for a lift, and retrieved guns, a bow and arrow, and some military-style “Rambo” knives from his vehicle to take with him. Borrowing a phone, he spoke to someone in what the farmer said sounded like code. The farmer drove Nathaniel up the road to a reserve where he was picked up.
Back where the LandCruiser had stopped in the floodwaters, the farmer found papers identifying Nathaniel with information about his school employment and medical records relating to his heart attack. He contacted police who told him there was nothing to be done because the vehicle wasn’t stolen. When the waters receded, the farmer started finding ammunition and loaded guns. “We assumed they were either stolen or unregistered,” he said. “I rang the police a day after to report it.”
Nathaniel joined his brother and Stacey in Wieambilla. He ended up losing his driving licence because of the border breach. A year later, days after the killings, the ABC reported that the LandCruiser remained on the farmer’s property.
In August 2022, a police car stopped outside the Trains’ locked gate on Wains Road in Wieambilla. There to speak with Nathaniel about dumping the firearms, the officer filled out a card requesting the occupants to contact him, waved it at the CCTV camera and put it in the letterbox. “Now shortly after that,” Deputy Commissioner Linford said in February, “[the officer] tried calling the address to no avail, and I think he went back to the property and the card was still in the letterbox.” Consequently, a warrant was issued over firearms offences. According to the police, Nathaniel’s only other previous contact with them had been a 2014 driving offence.
Fact doesn’t move the world. For more than a century, social psychologists have studied the ways in which our drives and woundings shape society, which in turn shapes us – that continuing dynamic that constricts our lives and is dismissed as simply the way things are. I wrote a book about the universality of the discomfiting emotions that drive us into the beliefs that separate us. So, I was not shocked by the consistencies in the stories people shared about radicalised friends and loved ones, or the depth of their grief over the loss of the person they had known. I was, however, surprised by the dimensions of the burden each shouldered as they attempted to stand in for all of humanity.
They spoke about the extreme stress of walking on eggshells, never knowing what the person might connect to their highly defended beliefs. They spoke about feeling compelled to stay in relationship with the person, a hope that such steadfastness might embody proof that the world was not against them. Aside from their grief and their endurance, there was one final thing most of those I spoke with had in common. When I asked why they had not gone down the path taken by the person close to them, they replied, with a self-effacing laugh, that they had been lucky enough to be able to access therapy.
Things are so quiet in Wieambilla that when a car drove into the Trains’ property in the middle of December 2022, the neighbours over the road noticed. There is evidence, too, that people knew about the barricades the Trains had installed, the mirrors fixed along the driveway, the foxholes concealed under scrub, and the methamphetamine the brothers were allegedly using.
In the year before his death, Gareth sent Madelyn “YouTube stuff, weird links” with increasing frequency. “COVID shit that I thought was not accurate”, she told Guardian Australia’s Nino Bucci. “It was not like, ‘Hey how are you?’ It was like, ‘Here’s this COVID conspiracy theory – BOOM!’” In the six weeks before the killings, Gareth posted at least a dozen videos, “railing against police, sometimes by name”. Two featured images of ASIO’s Mike Burgess. In one of the last videos, he read Nathaniel’s missing persons report over the opening credits to reality TV show Cops. He said, “You wish to make this public by using my little brother?” It ends with an image of an axe and a dagger.
No police or national security agency can be everywhere at once. However, given our monitoring capabilities and risk assessment tools, a relevant question is whether someone who presented this way, with violent jihadist concerns, would have similarly evaded detection, or intervention.
On Monday, December 12, 2022, constables Rachel McCrow, Matthew Arnold, Keely Brough, and Randall Kirk, drove to Wieambilla for a routine follow-up from Nathaniel’s missing person’s report. Later, Queensland Police Commissioner Katrina Carroll would say there were no concerns about the officers going to that address. The inquest will perhaps explain how that sits with the existence of the firearms warrant.
The officers left their two cars outside the locked gate, jumped the fence and started walking up the driveway towards the house. They couldn’t see the brothers, in full camouflage, lying on the ground, aiming rifles at them. Suddenly, as Arnold, 26 (Madelyn’s age), stepped over a wire fence, the Train brothers shot him dead. They shot McCrow, 29, in the leg. They shot Kirk, 28, also in the leg. He made it back to the police cars, which the brothers sprayed with bullets from a high-powered rifle as he drove off for help. Brough, 28, hid in the long grass. One of the brothers took Arnold’s Glock handgun and used it to kill the wounded McCrow. They took the police radio from the remaining car before setting fire to it. Then they lit up the grass, trying, it appears, to drive Brough out into the open. Concerned by the sounds and the smoke, the Trains’ neighbours, Alan Dare and Vic Lewis, drove over. After calling triple zero, Dare got out of the car and the Trains shot and killed him, too.
A text sent from Gareth’s phone to Madelyn at 6.34pm said that Nathaniel’s partner “sent people to kill us”.
“What does that mean, Gary?” was Madelyn’s worried reply. “Are you and Stacey alright? I love you both.”
They refrained from showing the vision, but 10 News described it to its audience as perhaps the most disturbing video of all – the one Gareth and Stacey posted three hours after killing Arnold, McCrow and Dare, and three hours before they would themselves be killed. In the clip, uploaded to YouTube, they loomed out of darkness, “hauntingly calm”. They referred to “devils and demons” coming onto their property.
“They came to kill us, and we killed them,” said Gareth.
“We will see you when we get home,” said Stacey.
Soon, they were shooting at the police helicopter guiding newly arrived tactical officers on the ground. Audio from the helicopter distinguished one of the brothers, probably Gareth, as “the main POI [person of interest]” and the other as “number 2”. Around 10.30pm, Gareth was reloading with cartridges from the rear tray of a ute. Officers in the helicopter reported shots going off “continually every five seconds”. Stacey was sighted as “a pair of legs in the red side balcony” before she was killed by officers. Nathaniel, prone on an outdoor couch, continued firing. “POI number 2 still discharging rounds. Number 1 and female are down. No movement.” Eventually, the movement on the couch slowed, then stopped.
Peter Dutton wasn’t the only former Queensland police officer to speak on the condolence motion in federal parliament three days later. “Mr Speaker,” said Liberal MP Llew O’Brien, “‘police are the public and the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.’ They are the words of Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern-day policing, and they are as relevant in 2022 as they were in the early 1800s when he said them. As a former country cop before coming into this place, they’re extremely relevant. You’re a part of the community. You keep order. You help people. They rely on you and you rely on them. That’s policing in Australia, and I think that is part of why this has struck so deep. Attacks like this, they attack the very fabric of who we are. Yes, there’s a tragic, tragic loss of life here, but when citizens turn on each other in this way it’s us turning on us, and it’s horrible. We have to do everything to work out why and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
While I was writing this essay, a line of young white men wearing identical black hats, black shirts and black shorts, performed the Nazi salute in front of Victoria’s Parliament House. They were there in support of divisive British anti-trans activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull’s rally. State Liberal MP Moira Deeming also attended in support, and later denied a connection to neo-Nazis, as did Keen-Minshull.
Keen-Minshull has posted a selfie with a Norwegian neo-Nazi. UK-based online newspaper PinkNews reported in January that a speaker at a rally earlier in her tour quoted Hitler in a speech against trans inclusion. Keen-Minshull, who has political aspirations in the United Kingdom, then left Melbourne for Canberra, where she posed outside federal parliament with Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, smiling under umbrellas in the rain.
Reading the scant biographical information on Keen-Minshull, I experienced a strange déjà vu. In 2010, she and her husband featured in a Times profile of families raising children without gender stereotypes. She spoke against gendered clothes, supported her sons playing with dolls. “I am also using Letterbox Library children’s books to find more diverse stories featuring children with disabilities, gay and ethnic minority characters,” she said. Things change, as someone who makes a cameo in the Trains’ story can attest. Her trajectory of seeming radicalisation reminded me of Mark Latham. Leader of the ALP in 2003, he was co-hosting Sky News’s Outsiders in 2017 and leading One Nation in New South Wales by the end of 2018. We are a nation that incentivises socially harmful exclusivism in its media and politics, but, as Keen-Minshull once put it in an entirely different context, there’s also a “weird social currency of acceptance”, and sometimes it makes offers we are unequipped to refuse.
In the taxonomy of loneliness, moral aloneness is the most terrible, as Balzac recognised and Fromm restated. That’s something known, if only unconsciously, by those whose political image has undergone a conversion totius substantiæ, but also by anyone who has quietly rationalised bad treatment in order to feel loved. Relatedness, in Fromm’s conception, assumes many forms, not all of them equal. “The monk in his cell who believes in God and the political prisoner kept in isolation who feels one with his fellow fighters are not alone morally,” he wrote. “Neither is … the petit bourgeois who, though being deeply isolated from his fellow men, feels one with his nation or its symbols. The kind of relatedness to the world may be noble or trivial but even being related to the basest kind of pattern is immensely preferable to being alone. Religion and nationalism as well as any custom and any belief, however absurd and degrading, if it only connects the individual with others, are refuges from what man most dreads: isolation.
“Would Satan have found companions without this overpowering craving?” Fromm continued. “On this theme one could write a whole epic, which would be the prologue to Paradise Lost, because Paradise Lost is nothing but the apology of rebellion.”
More information about the factors that coalesced in Wieambilla will come out at the coronial inquest. We can expect more detail about the Trains, and about whether failures in information sharing between state police agencies played a role in the havoc they were able to wreak. But while answers are essential, public safety also depends on asking questions about the master narratives we tell ourselves regarding the type of society we are, and the type of society we need to be.
The “twisted tale of the three conspiracy theorists”, as 7News had it, is also a story about domestic violence, insecure work, underfunded schools, interactive norms in fundamentalist religious communities, help that never came and pain that had nowhere to go. The Trains’ activation around vaccination and lockdown issues speaks to failures in political leadership and messaging, failures in media regulation, and social media’s insidious trick of advertising-as-community. Their online activity is further proof, which we didn’t need, that we have not – and perhaps cannot – effectively monitor those spaces. So, in conditions of rapid social change and rising economic precarity, we can no longer afford to be perniciously incurious about the sociopolitical factors that lead to radicalisation, because the magnitude of the vulnerabilities we choose to ignore is the inverse measure of the brittleness of the world as we know it.
“As a society, there’s been close to no introspection about Brenton Tarrant, and what context he emerged from,” Josh Roose tells me. “There’s been no introspection about the situations that have led to what we’ve seen up at Wieambilla. There’s a complete failure to ask deeper-seated questions about the root causes … and the faultlines that were exploited. That would certainty never have been an issue if these were Salafi jihadists … What happens when the enemy is ‘one of us’?”
In Mike Burgess’s 2023 threat assessment, he stated that ASIO has not found evidence that the Trains “embraced a racist and nationalist ideology or were sovereign citizens, despite their anti-authority and conspiracy beliefs”.
“It is neither helpful nor accurate to reflexively assign these individuals to a place on the political spectrum,” he said. “These are not simply semantic or academic distinctions. Words matter. Facts matter. Actions matter. If we, as a community, persist in getting the diagnosis wrong, we will struggle to find a cure.”
After emphasising that threat to life will always be a priority for ASIO, Burgess then stated that “espionage and foreign interference is now our principal security concern”.
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