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Martin McKenzie-Murray chronicles the year, from spirited victories on the sports field to the final moments of the Sydney siege and what followed.

By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The year that was: Seeking meaning inside a vacuum

Floral tributes cover Martin Place, Sydney, near the scene of Monday’s Lindt cafe siege.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

Perspective’s a hard thing to come by now. Not just on the siege, but the whole year, and especially after glimpsing the faces of Tuesday’s victims, Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson. In the images they are young and healthy. Smiling. Dawson was a lawyer and mother of three young children. There are unconfirmed reports that Johnson, the cafe’s manager, attempted to wrestle the gun from Man Haron Monis. We now learn that two other hostages were pregnant. Many suffered gunshot wounds. They will all suffer degrees of trauma.

The Daily Telegraph stamped its own perspective on its special Monday afternoon edition. Of the then unresolved siege in Martin Place, it screamed: “The instant we changed forever.” At the same time, the prime minister was urging us to “go about our business”. The next day, New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione described the siege as an isolated incident that should “never destroy, or change the way of our life”. So which one was it?

The Tele’s headline was the sort of portentous indulgence you would expect, but it was also premature. We did not yet know scale, sophistication, motivation or outcome, yet it was imploring us to consider this an epochal moment. Its perspective was formed with imperfect knowledge. And its real perspective was insular: to fill the vacuum of information with a defining take. So it was in 2014. All over the world, where vacuums existed they were filled with violence or speculation.

We may never know what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. That a giant passenger jet could disappear in such an earnestly surveyed age seemed implausible. So sure were we of our omnipotence that conspiracy theories poured into the vacuum. But the ocean is vast. And so is our ignorance. 

MH17’s demise was just as sudden, just as random, but it ended with an awful punctuation mark. At 33,000 feet, countries don’t exist for passengers. They’re obscured by cloud, or stretch as faint smudges. But beneath those clouds, assembled upon the smudges, were the drunk proxies of revived Russian imperialism. Unofficial soldiers configured their unofficial war machines and tilted them to the sky.

Our shock at the destruction of the plane was captured well by our prime minister – who at last had something before him that complemented his coarse bravado – but it unravelled later with his confused “shirtfront” comment and Putin’s intransigence. Abbott needed to evoke Australian decency and influence, and it worked for a while, but we must now realise our impotency among a violently irresolvable world. “Cryptic fragments from remote antiquity reveal a view of the human condition as irremediably marked by change and strife,” Nixon’s state secretary Henry Kissinger wrote in a book this year called World Order. “‘World-order’ was fire-like, ‘kindling in measure and going out in measure,’ with war ‘the Father and King of all’ creating change in the world. But ‘the unity of things lies beneath the surface; it depends upon a balanced reaction between opposites.’”

Siege perspective

What perspective to take on the siege? I don’t know. There are competing interpretations, each with value. If there were any doubt that Islamist radicals are among us, surely it is banished now. Senior police have told me for months that “lone wolf” attacks are an elevated threat – especially from those returning from Syria. Intelligence agencies are better equipped to disrupt sophisticated plots, ones that leave detectable footprints of conspiracy.

But Monis wasn’t your average lone wolf. He had repeatedly come into contact with authorities. The ABC’s religion reporter Rachael Kohn wrote about Monis’s ugly radicalism five years ago. In December last year, he was released on bail after being charged as an accessory to his wife’s murder. Another 40 charges of indecent assault also existed for him. An enormous weight will befall intelligence agencies and the NSW justice system.

During the siege, some expressed desire for a retreating foreign policy – isolationism, essentially – fearing that Abbott’s denunciations of the Islamic State, and his provision of troops, increased our vulnerability. But in 2014 we can no longer quarantine ourselves from the diffusion of radicalism, any more than the local car industry can quarantine itself from globalism. The grand, if fanciful, objective of the IS is the re-establishment of a caliphate. It is a geographic and ideological vision, and one that has attracted a high number, per capita, of Australians.

Then there is the vacuum left after the Iraq war – the one we helped create – which has now been resoundingly filled with sectarian bloodshed and extremism. This may commend the isolationist’s argument, but the damage is done. The genie has fled.

So there’s a threat, as there is global entanglement. But how much of a threat? And was Tuesday’s bloodshed the result of “psychopathology in search of a cause”, as terror expert Adam Dolnik described it? Is it significant that murder was dressed in politics, as vague and garbled as they were? The left has ascribed the murder to mental illness, to better protect Muslims against thuggish recrimination. The instinct is admirable but it’s intellectually slovenly. It supposes that the loose category of “mental illness” is consumptive, parasitically destroying self-awareness. This may or may not be the case. We don’t know, but have presumed to understand the parameters of Monis’s agency.

And the remote designation of “mental illness” as a sort of fire retardant is not so generously applied when the politics change. Were the crimes of Anders Breivik on that tiny Norwegian island the work of mental illness, or evidence of the rising threat of right-wing extremism? When farmer Geoff Hunt murdered his wife and three children in September, feminist commentators were disturbed by descriptions of a good man “snapping”. The willingness to contextualise was viewed as an insidious attempt to dilute responsibility and validate male violence.

Our assignations of motivation are fraught. Where we draw the line between politics and pathology is an inconsistent and personal performance, and one that assumes the two categories are neatly discrete. They’re not.

The cultural debate about Monis’s psyche recalls the coronial inquest into Luke Batty’s murder. More than one police officer described Luke’s father – and killer – as “bad, not mad” despite Greg Anderson having refused psychiatric assessment. There were at least two reasons for this. One is that despite what we see now as deep disturbance, Anderson was still aware, calculating and articulate. The second is more personal, as most of our assumptions are: daily, police witness the nightmare outcomes of egregious behaviour and for many it is psychically loathsome to mitigate these horrors with abstraction. It’s not necessarily right, but it’s understandable.

Proportionality is vital. I have no issue with the prime minister’s preferred description of the IS as a “death cult”. But in the past week, approximately 42 people have taken their lives, two men murdered their partners, and the young woman I wrote about last week was still in Australia, estranged from her mother after her father and most likely her brother were murdered by another death cult, the Taliban.

Meanwhile, NSW Premier Mike Baird said that the public was being tested, but just outside the police cordon on Monday were throngs of people necking beer and snapping selfies. Hours later, when the popcorn had gone cold, the theatre delivered two dead hostages.

Was this the week that we changed forever? Do we accept this as a beginning, or do we “go about our business” untrammelled by fear? The Daily Telegraph wasn’t as much interested in the answers than the simple assertion. And what they asserted massaged the disturbed egos of radicals across the world. “The instant we changed forever”, and yet, by next morning, the buses were rolling, the trains running as usual, the CBD purring. The Daily Telegraph’s imperative was not sober instruction but its promotion as democratic interpreter of Great Events. More than anything, it served to confirm for nascent terrorists that notoriety and hysteria were theirs if they wanted it.

Sport overcame tragedy

This strange and sorrowful time extended to our sporting fields, to which we usually turn. But sport also provided a wonderful contrast to our collective hysteria when, days before the Sydney tragedy, the Australian Test team had secured a famous victory. They found solace in normalcy and reaffirmations of friendship.

It wasn’t just Mitchell Johnson’s moustache that had recalled the ’70s at the 2013-14 Ashes. It was the restoration of the fast bowler as the centrepiece of a series. In a game whose mechanical developments – flatter pitches, space-age armour, broader and lighter bats –
had come to favour batsmen, Johnson memorably reclaimed the advantage.

Johnson had long struggled to combine pace, accuracy and self-assurance. He was equally capable of devastating the opposition’s top order as he was his own reputation. But in the Tests against England his virtues cohered spectacularly and his became the most successful Ashes series for an Australian bowler. At the centre of his triumph was a smiling aggression. He had beaten the English long before they scratched their mark at the crease. “I was sitting there, thinking, ‘I could die here in the fucking Gabbattoir,” Kevin Pietersen wrote of facing the Australian quick. “You very seldom hear people in your own team saying that they are physically scared, but our tailend batsmen were scared.”

Aggression was everywhere. “Get ready for a broken fucking arm,” Australian captain Michael Clarke snarled at tailender Jimmy Anderson. He was referring to the prospect of Johnson. Clarke’s comment was publicly judged, some remarking supportively on mental advantages in simulated war. Others spoke of role models, or appealed to a non-existent genteelness of the game. In the English change room there was fear, dissent and early retirements. On January 7, the series ended in a 5–0 capitulation. The urn returned to Australia.

Less than a year later, Clarke was eulogising his “little brother” Phillip Hughes in a hot school gymnasium in Macksville, NSW. It was 30 degrees outside, and much warmer in the gym. Most men had removed their jackets; mourners fanned themselves with the order of service sheets. Beneath the lectern, Clarke’s mate lay in his coffin. A Kookaburra bat leant against it. The Australian captain sought composure in sharp inhalations, made audible by the microphone. Then he sighed deeply. Clarke was besieged. Before he began, he tried to steady himself a different way: with an improvised and self-effacing quip: “He’d definitely be calling me a sook right now, that’s for sure.”

For the first half of his eulogy Clarke spoke rapidly, resembling a man who had suddenly found himself on a frozen lake and was now sprinting panicked across the ice. Eventually he slowed, better reconciled with what lay beneath. Whether he ran or walked it didn’t much change the number of steps to the other side. “I don’t know about you, but I keep looking for him. I know it’s crazy but I expect any minute to take a call from him. Or to see his face pop around the corner. Is this what we call the spirit?”

What place now for aggression in cricket? I don’t mean banning the bouncer or regulating sledging, or any other bloodless suggestion – they should no more be outlawed than cars or alcohol. I mean what place aggression in the hearts and minds of the Australian team? Where Johnson once had to calibrate pace, accuracy and self-assurance, he must now add the ghost of Phillip Hughes. In the first Test against India last week, Johnson struck Virat Kohli with a short delivery. The Australians immediately rushed to the batsman, who was fine, but Johnson was shaken. Clarke rubbed his bowler’s slumped shoulders, as Johnson dejectedly made his way back to his mark.

And will Clarke now be embarrassed or appalled by his comments to Anderson? Or can he distinguish them from cosmic flukes? The fact that Hughes’s was a freak accident will register quickly with the intellect, but it may long haunt the athletic instinct. 

Hughes’s death was an awful spasm in sport’s fantasy world. It wasn’t the only one. There was the Melbourne Cup, our great catwalk for fevered egos. The broadcast was numbing. Before the deaths, commentators concealed gauche revelry with platitudes on cultural importance. But when race favourite Admire Rakti collapsed in its stall after the race, the commentators were not equipped. Shocked, they continued in their register of glibness. Silence would have been more eloquent.

And when it was learned that Araldo shattered its leg in panic after being spooked by a crowd member – fatally, it turned out – the jig was up. These finely clothed men of television had nothing. They could no sooner balance hedonism and death than question the silliness of their reverence for the Cup. It was a day to vomit in the turf, for unctuous bankrupts to propose, for watching horses die. The previous month, two female jockeys – Caitlin Forrest and Carly-Mae Pye – died in as many days after falls. The nation did not stop.

But if anywhere the fantasy machine was humming beautifully, it was the World Cup. The Socceroos had qualified unconvincingly, diffidently edging out Middle Eastern minnows before drawing the 2010 champions, runners-up and Chile in their group. It looked bad. But we played with surprising insouciance, an attractive midfield, and participated, with the Netherlands, in one of the great World Cup games. In the 21st minute, a goal down, Ryan McGowan floated a long ball towards Tim Cahill, who had advanced upon the Dutch box. What followed was athletic sorcery. Cahill volleyed a ball that travelled a third of the pitch and dropped from over his shoulder. It smashed against the underside of the crossbar, and an iconic moment was born. But Australia would lose every one of its three matches, and soon after slump to outside the top 100 in FIFA’s ranking. In its mixture of promise and dashed hopes, it was a very adult fairytale.

Stars in our eyes darkened

2014 was another year where we mistook our fallacies for inviolable truths. A prominent one for the government is that the economy’s shrinking dynamism is owed to Labor’s profligacy. It is a narrative encouraged by the bipartisan idiocy that describes our national accounts in terms of household budgets. Surplus good. Deficit bad. We have rhetorically narrowed our economy to a bank slip. Diminished terms of trade, an ageing population, the automation of labour, an archaic tax system – these remain unspoken, subsumed by “the narrative”.

But some big myths unspooled this year. In July, Rolf Harris, OBE, was convicted of indecent assault and sentenced to almost six years’ prison. A life of criminal lechery was revealed beneath a career of shrewd affability. At 84, the law had cut him off at the pass. A great trick of TV is that it makes the longevity of its stars seem natural. In Britain, Rolf’s seemed as indigenous and unchanging as the drizzle. But such permanence rarely occurs without megalomania. Rolf’s great talent was disguising it – and his lusts – with ordinariness. A man of middling talents prevailed on this enormous one.

Then the long-whispered crimes of Bill Cosby reached a tipping point this year. The deference that had protected him was largely withdrawn, along with TV contracts, many decades after the first alleged incident of rape. To believe in Cosby’s innocence now is to believe that more than 20 women are lying, the majority of whom are not seeking civil action and are prevented from pressing charges by statutes of limitation.

Cosby is a cultural lion: an immensely influential comic and later, via The Cosby Show, an avatar of American decency. Cosby toured the country, sermonising black America on their violence, their broken homes and the perils of fetishising victimhood. He was simultaneously fierce and beloved for his geniality. Famously, he never cursed, while his very wardrobe – garish knitted sweaters – became shorthand for wholesomeness. But Cosby’s alleged victims suggest a vile modus operandi practised over decades: the drugging of young and credulous women, who were subsequently overpowered and raped.

Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby polished their reputations until they became popular clichés: of philanthropy, affability and rectitude, respectively. We have awful lessons now in duplicity and the protections afforded celebrity. We also have a reminder of the double standards that exist for female victims of sexual assault. Such claims inspire a level of suspicion not generated by claims of theft, fraud or street assaults. Somehow, despite the verifiable prevalence, claims of sexual abuse are considered more dubious than reports of any other crime. Our threshold for doubt is much lower for women. It’s as if we assume they have less credibility.

Finally, we have – if we needed any more – evidence of how cretinous Golden Age fallacies are. This month, Jimmy Savile’s former chauffeur, Ray Teret, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the serial rape of girls in the 1960s and ’70s. Justice Baker said in sentencing Teret: “Anyone who considers that society was a better place then than now to be a child would do well to reflect upon the evidence that this trial disclosed about that period; when sex education … was rudimentary and sexual matters in general were little discussed within the home. That state of ignorance was one of the main facilitators of your ability to exploit these young girls.”

It is a brave or stupid person who can reduce a time to a prevailing – now lamentably banished – virtue. We are always a work in progress.

Inner turmoil

This year a very different comic, Robin Williams, took his life. We might assume that Cosby condescended to Williams’ profane mania, but we know whose legacy will be most cherished. He was a warm and brilliant man, whose warmth too often transfigured into kitsch, but who left portents to his death. In a 2010 interview with comic Marc Maron, Williams spoke at length about drugs, drink and drift. In a stunning moment he interviewed himself, splitting his psyche into two roles: the depressed self; and a higher, calmer, rational voice.

“When I was drinking, there was only one time even for a moment when I thought, ‘Aw, fuck life.’ And then even my conscious brain went: Did you honestly just say, ‘Fuck life?’ You know, you have a pretty good life as it is right now. Have you noticed the two houses?”

“Yes.”

“Have you noticed the girlfriend?”

“Yes.”

“Have you noticed that things are pretty good, even though you may not be working right now?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, let’s put the suicide over here... Let’s leave it over here in the discussion area, we’ll talk about that. First of all, you don’t have the balls to do it. I’m not going to say it out loud. I mean, have you thought about buying a gun?”

“No.”

“What were you going to do, like cut your wrists with a Waterpik?”

“Maybe.”

When news broke of Williams’ death, calls to Lifeline spiked. This past financial year – the suicide hotline’s 50th – the service answered 620,000 calls, up 30 per cent from the previous year. The increase was owed to much more than Williams’ suicide, of course, but like Phillip Hughes’s death there was a consequence of our mediated intimacy with celebrities.

Time

Gough Whitlam’s death invited elegiac ruminations on the Labor Party. The death of imagination. Of risk. Of intellectual adventure. There were variations on the diagnosis: that Whitlam was a singular figure, a sort of Roman fluke; that the time then was different, charged with a desire for change; or that the Labor party, intellectually bereft after the Hawke–Keating reforms and maimed by factional autocracy, can no longer attract and mentor talent. This is a smattering of the conventional wisdom, anyway. Likely it is some subtle combination of all three, and much more besides. The perspective or emphasis will change depending on the person. It always does.

Not an end

Without a mattress of sympathy, Michael Clarke’s bold declaration on the final day of the first Test against India would have been interpreted, depending upon the outcome, as either impetuous lunacy or strategic mastery. As it was, Clarke had already secured our sympathy and later a dramatic victory. We have Clarke to thank not just for a win, but risking the game in a way that stole it from the timidity that lay in Hughes’s shadow. Clarke’s gamble reinvested the match with competitive passion.

There’s a lesson there. A proud group, wincing with trauma, went on, took risks, and won. And we will go on. This week wasn’t the instant everything changed. Far from it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 20, 2014 as "Seeking meaning inside a vacuum". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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