“It’s over. Thank God.”
These were my thoughts on waking in Brisbane this morning to news that the Sydney siege had ended at 2am last night, sadly with the death of two hostages. The gunman responsible for the 16-hour siege at the Lindt cafe in the city’s CBD was also killed.
I don’t doubt these thoughts were echoed across Australia today as we as a nation come to terms with not only the loss of life, the senselessness and horror of it all, but most importantly how we deal with this as a community moving forward.
While the actual siege might be over, the issues it has raised remain. These include the potential for hatred and backlash directed towards Australian Muslims, public perception over matters of safety and the effectiveness of the law in dealing with dangerous persons. It may not be the events themselves or how officials and police handled them that will define this tragedy, but the public’s response in the aftermath of the Martin Place siege. While it may still be too early to tell how that will play out, here are some of the immediate public responses to these and other matters associated with the events at Martin Place.
A steady flow of people have visited Martin Place today to lay wreaths and tributes, to sing, and pay their respects, but they have reportedly been going to mosques as well. Churches and mosques have organised prayer vigils and a number of other events will take place this weekend at major centres around the country. Flags are also being flown at half mast around Australia.
Many have chosen to express their grief and condolences on social media, such as the Lindt Australia Facebook page. Lindt itself has posted regular statements, including a tribute to store manager Tori Johnson, who was one of the two victims killed in the siege. Johnson reportedly struggled with the gunman for control of his weapon, allowing people to escape the store. Katrina Dawson was the other hostage that lost her life, again reportedly while defending a pregnant friend. Tori Johnson’s family released this statement to the media today:
We are so proud of our beautiful boy Tori, gone from this Earth but forever in our memories as the most amazing life partner, son and brother we could ever wish for.
We feel heartfelt sorrow for the family of Katrina Dawson.
We’d like to thank not only our friends and loved ones for their support, but the people of Sydney, Australia, and those around the world for reaching out with their thoughts and prayers.
Our deepest gratitude to the NSW police, armed forces and paramedics for their tireless efforts.
We ask that the media respects our privacy in this difficult time.
Let us all pray for peace on Earth.
The Muslim community has been quick to respond to the tragic events in Sydney, paying respects at Martin Place and offering condolences to the families involved. Many Australians have acted quickly to stifle the potential for anti-Islamic sentiment, some of which has already found its way into social media, by offering to accompany Muslim people on public transport by using the #illridewithyou hashtag on Twitter.
This resolve by Australians in crisis to stick together has garnered world attention. Liberal America wrote: “This one hashtag from the Australian hostage crisis will restore your faith in humanity” while Australians either supported the campaign or outlined their travel schedules online.
However media, including social media, was also awash with other comments that raised the sticky and ongoing issue of the role of Islam in Australian society. For example Lindt Australia was commended on Facebook for not being Halal certified, a growing public issue in Australia, although whether there is a connection between the event and Lindt’s policy is unknown.
There were also some media reports that connected the perpetrator Man Haron Monis with IS even though he was not a member of any terrorist association and used only a Shahada flag, although he did request an IS flag during the siege and later associated his actions with IS. The Daily Telegraph was criticised for this front page that was labelled “irresponsibile” and “inflammatory”.
Monis’ lawyer, Manny Conditsis, said of his former client’s actions:
This is a one-off random individual. It’s not a concerted terrorism event or act. It’s a damaged goods individual who’s done something outrageous.
Sydney writer Ruby Hamad wrote on her ABC blog that she hoped the support shown to the Muslim community would define Australia and not the anti-Islamic sentiments that have been voiced:
While it is true that this gunman put Islam front and centre by utilising that flag, let’s put the emphasis where it belongs. He may have made it about religion, but the operative word here is “he”, and not “religion.”
Like many other violent men, Man Haron Monis was charged with many crimes, including being an accessory to his wife’s murder. Also like many other violent men, he slipped through the legal cracks and went on to offend in one of the most horrific ways possible.
Perception of safety
During the event police, politicians and other officials urged Australians to go about life as usual. In a media conference yesterday Prime Minister Tony Abbott addressed the nation with these sentiments:
The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves…
Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society. Nothing should ever change that and that’s why I would urge all Australians today to go about their business as usual.
While Australians have long felt our geographic isolation somehow separates us from the concerns and dangers so prevalent in other parts of the world, an event of this nature will challenge that perception. While yesterday the Prime Minister and police were wary of terrorism associations, today Tony Abbott called the event a “brush with terrorism”.
As the siege unfolded yesterday, he sought to cloak his actions with the symbolism of the ISIL death cult.
Australians should be reassured by the way our law enforcement and security agencies responded to this brush with terrorism.
Not a comforting thought for an Australian public long fearful of how our military engagement in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and our current involvement in fighting IS could affect us at home.
While some officials said we are no less safe than we were yesterday, it’s hard to rationalise that sentiment at this time. Bloggers, writers, journalists and members of the public have also reported the eerie feeling on Sydney streets that are normally brimming with people, traffic and school leaders in the cheerful lead up to Christmas.
From Business Insider:
One Sydney mother who works just around the corner from the site of the siege, Amanda Jones, told me: “Today does not feel like yesterday”.
Between tears, she said no longer felt as safe in this city.
“I’m a mum, I have to protect my kids,” she said. “I won’t be going to New Years Eve on the Harbour… It could’ve happened to anyone.”
“It’s a very sad day for Australia.”
Effectiveness of process of law
The gunman, Man Haron Monis, was granted political asylum in Australia in 2001. Since then he has faced charges of indecent and sexual assault against several women and was accused of being an accessory in his ex-wife’s murder. He had also been convicted for sending abusive letters to the families of dead Australian soldiers. In the aftermath of yesterday’s tragedy many have questioned how a man known to police, who had posted extremist material, could have slipped through the cracks in the legal system and even why he was allowed to stay on in this country.
Monis’ lawyer Manny Conditsis defended the court’s decision to release Monis on bail in December 2013 telling the ABC:
It’s very easy, Lexi, to have a broad brush approach to these things – look at what happened a year later, look at the tragic events that have transpired overnight and conclude that he should not have been granted bail.
It’s an easy thing to do, it’s a simple thing to do, but in my view it’s not the right thing to do.
You’ve got to go back to December 2013 when he was granted bail, you’ve got to consider the material that was placed before the court, you’ve got to consider the strength of the prosecution case at that time.
While there are yet few answers for an Australian public picking up the pieces after a day of terror and fear, perhaps the best thing to do in all circumstances of this kind, and as we have before in other tragedies and natural disasters, is to remember who we are as a nation.
After all ultimately it is we ourselves who define who we are and that choice is always ours, even in the aftermath of events such as this. Australians may not consider our Prime Minister a particularly eloquent speaker but it’s his words we can take away from this. Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society. Nothing should ever change that, not terror, not fear, nor hatred or violence. They have no place here.