Opinion

James Brown
Fighting a siege mentality

Since Tuesday morning, two thoughts on the crime that was committed in Sydney’s Martin Place have been running through my head. The first is how I would have acted had I been caught in the same situation as Tori Johnson, Katrina Dawson and the other hostages. How would I have borne up under Man Haron Monis’s ranting? Would I have leapt for his shotgun, as Tori Johnson reportedly did in the final moments of the siege? Would I have wept in the corner of the Lindt cafe, or crept out the door to escape when the opportunity presented? Who would I have contacted in those dark hours of the night, if given the opportunity? The second thought, on which I have few answers, is what can be done now?

Pondering this question, how to react if caught up in this thing, I think explains why so many Australians have reacted to this shooting in such a deeply emotive way. Simply put, many of us can cast our minds inside this siege. It is all too easy to paint ourselves into the picture of a group of people trapped in their regular cafe on their normal commute to work. Buying the first coffee of the morning is habitual for so many CBD workers, as is walking through Sydney’s Martin Place. My own office is two blocks from the Lindt cafe, my chosen morning cafe even closer. In the hostages unfortunately caught up in this siege, we could see normality, too: IT workers, barristers, cafe staff, a retiree on his way home from an annual medical check-up.

Far from being strangers, these hostages were just like us. And because of the saturation media coverage, so many Australians were directly connected to what was happening. My Monday began with the realisation that a friend had narrowly missed being locked inside the doors of the Lindt cafe; it ended with a late-night phone call from a family member of one of the hostages.

To put yourself in that siege situation, to ask what might have been were it you or someone you know, is to give licence to the most primal of fears and fantasies. And with so little information available in the first few hours of this hostage drama, many let their imaginations run wild. Rumours spread fast and wide, fuelled by the hyper-volatility of instant phone-based networking. Normally sober friends queried whether to evacuate the city, and whether to believe reports that bombs were scattered around major train stations. At daycare centres, far from Sydney’s CBD, concerned staff kept children locked inside, away from the sunlight and playgrounds outside. Thousands of office workers were kept in lockdown for hours, despite being outside the police-designated security zone.

Others, though, thought the presence of police tactical teams equipped with heavy weaponry a frivolity. Posing for photos near police crowd-control lines, snapping selfies against the backdrop of thronging media crews, excitedly phoning family and friends to let them know they were a part of the action unfolding on television. Enjoying a sensation of sorts without any regard for consequence.

Even now, as details are stitched together about what actually took place on Monday, reactions are fragmented. One question on which views are sharply bifurcated is whether the Martin Place incident was terrorism or not.

For me, this was not a terrorist incident. It bore few of the hallmarks of other terrorist incidents I have seen or studied. There was no co-ordinated media plan from the start, no clear message, no obvious outcome the gunman was seeking. Terrorism is designed for impact and more commonly than not, very carefully so. In cities such as Madrid, London, Baghdad and Kabul, terrorist groups schedule communiqués to be released precisely as they storm a building. The media strategy is crafted long before the physical target is picked. In cities such as Karachi, Mumbai and Kandahar, the violence and bloodshed in terrorist attacks is immediate. Had this been a cafe in Tel Aviv, there would have been no drawnout negotiation, just instant shooting and explosions: carnage and martyrdom as the desired end state. Though we don’t yet know precisely what motivated it, this Sydney incident seems more akin to the 1996 Port Arthur shooting than the foiled Islamist plot five years ago to spread terror by slaying soldiers at Sydney’s Holsworthy Barracks.

This seems to have been a crime committed by a mentally deranged individual with no clear plan to spread terror, just a need for attention and personal meaning. There is no evidence that any of Man Haron Monis’s actions were co-ordinated with individuals from the Islamic State (IS) or any other extremist organisation. He was an opportunist, casually shifting his allegiance from Sunni to Shiite Islam. The IS provided a convenient brand to which he could hitch his individual needs.

But such nuanced interpretations offer little sense or succour to those who view the Middle East as an amorphous block of misery and strife. What is important, instead, is that the IS issued a call to arms several months ago, and this sole madman lethally answered it. This siege was Islamic terrorism because a Muslim carried it out. It belongs to the IS because Monis asked for their flag. And it could happen again. Though I take a more nuanced perspective, I still respect the individual perspectives that lead people to classify this event as a terrorist incident. After all, if you are terrified by this incident then the IS’s terrorist aim has been achieved, regardless of how indirectly or incidentally.

To understand what happened in Sydney, it is helpful to look at another violent incident that took place in Fort Hood, Texas, five years ago. Then United States Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others in a shooting rampage spurred by his increasing opposition to the conflicts in Afghanistan, his social isolation and his mental instability. In the aftermath of the Fort Hood incident, fierce debate erupted over whether it should be classified as terrorism. When the US Department of Defence classified the incident as an act of workplace violence, some survivors of the attack and their families sued the US government to have it reclassified as an act of terrorism. Yet in the end, a thorough FBI investigation concluded that Hasan acted alone, and didn’t establish many of his justifications for the killings until after the tragic event. Insanity, rather than terrorism, was the major factor. As one of the Tasmanian policemen most familiar with Port Arthur killer Martin Bryant reflected, there is “no logic in the madness”.

Rather than obsessing over how to classify this horrible incident, the official focus will now turn to understanding how it happened and how to prevent it from occurring again. Police and agencies will review how Monis was able to obtain a firearm and elude bail despite his criminal history. Reviews at federal and state levels will probe how an individual who had acted so extremely on so many occasions was not flagged for further attention despite so many interactions with government departments. But the simple fact is that government cannot legislate away the risk of something like this ever happening again. We live in a country with an excellent criminal justice system, the most effective gun-control laws in the world, and sophisticated military and intelligence agencies. Yet it is a country still located in an imperfect world, and there will always be risks to how we go about our lives.

So what can we do in the aftermath of this incident? In Pakistan, where more than 140 teachers and students were wantonly slain on Tuesday, a situation with which most of us simply cannot connect, the answer is simple. It was screamed from the front page of Wednesday’s Pakistan Today, “Today we mourn, tomorrow we fight!” The paradox of living in a sophisticated democracy such as ours is that we have little left to do in the aftermath of tragedy. Police will complete the investigations, professional counsellors will be appointed to help the grieving families and shaken survivors, officials will tighten legislation and regulation as necessary. We should be proud that we live in a country where instead of leaping to arms, all that is left for most of us is to contemplate what might have been. To reflect on how we maintain the precious balance of freedom and security. And to build heartwarming ceremonies around a sea of bright flowers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 20, 2014 as "Fighting a siege mentality". Subscribe here.

James Brown
is the research director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.