It read like a script from a bad surf movie: A group of youths who appeared to be of Lebanese descent are said to have assaulted a couple of lifeguards lifesavers, in the Australian idiom at Cronulla. Long-simmering resentments between the immigrants and the locals led to hundreds of the latter group coming as a rabble army to reclaim the beach with violence and intimidation. Seeking revenge, youths of Arab descent rampaged through the suburbs.
In short order, Australia had its worst ethnic disturbance in living memory and to many, at home and abroad, nothing about it seemed in keeping with the Australian way, except perhaps the destructive part played by alcohol. In Cronulla, the underdogs were beaten mercilessly by gangs. Worse, some of the unfriendly perpetrators carried Australian flags as a sign that they were the real Aussies.
But of Australias 20 million people, nearly a quarter were born overseas. Australia became a land of immigrants because it had to; after the Second World War when Japanese mini-submarines attacked Sydney Harbor itself, the realization grew that the country could not remain a British outpost, geographically in Asia, but not part of it. This fact of life also eventually doomed the notorious White Australia Policy, which once limited immigration to Europeans. Some 300,000 Muslims now live in Australia.
Integrating immigrants had been a point of pride: It made insular Australia prosperous, cosmopolitan and outward-looking, paving the way to the nations acceptance among its Asian neighbors. Cronulla threatens that.
Tension over the war on terror Australia has sent troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq, and as a result Australians have been targets of al-Qaida, most notably in Bali explains some of it, as does simple racism. Between Australias self-image and reality, a gulf has developed that needs to be the subject of a national soul-searching.