Like so many Australians, I watched in horror and disbelief as the siege in Sydney's Martin Place unfolded on Monday morning. At around 10am, we were told that a gunman had stormed the Lindt Cafe in Sydney's CBD taking between 15 and 50 hostages. Within an hour, Sydney was in a state of emergency lockdown. People on the floors above the cafe were escorted down ladders to safety, and the channel 7 offices, directly across the road from the Lindt cafe, were emptied of staff. Elsewhere in the CBD, people were forced to remain indoors and the Opera House was immediately closed and evacuated. Emergency services, special forces units and the bomb squad were mobilised around the perimeter of the cafe, and hostage negotiators were put in place.
The highly sophisticated security measures were praised for providing safety and reassurance to a frightened and bewildered public, but they also fed into the false and misleading narrative that Sydney was under attack.
Little was known about the gunman or his motive until much later that day, however to some news sources, the mere presence of a black flag with white Islamic writing was ample confirmation of an ISIS terrorist attack. Rupert Murdoch's 'Daily Telegraph' reported the siege as an attack by the IS Death Cult in its 2pm edition, despite failing to validate this information. Throughout the 16 hour siege, interviews with terrorism experts were screened on the ABC, SBS and all commercial stations. Analysts likened the siege to the London, Madrid and Boston terrorist attacks, even long after the police had ruled out links between the gunman and terrorist networks.
By mid afternoon, the gunman was publicly identified as Man Harin Monis, a lone wolf previously known to police for his incredibly checkered criminal past, including the suspected brutal murder of his ex- wife, and 40 charges of sexual assault. The media were also quick to inform us that Monis was also an Iranian Refugee in receipt of Centrelink benefits; a self- appointed Islamic Cleric; a self-styled Islamic Sheikh and an Islamic extremist.
The fact that Monis had a long history of violence against women was nowhere near as compelling as his history with religious extremism, especially when the latter could be positioned to justify a terrorist agenda. The letters Monis sent to the families of slain Australian soldiers were undoubtedly reprehensible but so too was the brutal murder of his ex-wife and the string of sexual assaults against women. However, these crimes failed to rate a mention in the Prime Minister's press briefing, presumably because they didn't fit the convenient terrorist profile.
"What we do know is that the perpetrator was well known to State and Commonwealth authorities. He had a long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability. We know that he sent offensive letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan and was found guilty of offences related to this. We also know that he posted graphic extremist material online. As the siege unfolded yesterday, he sought to cloak his actions with the symbolism of the ISIL death cult." Tony Abbott.
Tony Abbott's decision to use words such as, 'ISIL', 'death cult', 'terror' and 'extremism' in his subsequent press briefings was certainly not accidental. Abbott later described the siege as a 'brush with terrorism' despite knowing that Monis was a mentally deranged individual acting alone. And in the aftermath of the siege on Tuesday when the facts were well established, the Prime Minister repeatedly lamented the fact that Monis was not on any of the terror watch lists. This statement seemed dubious to me until I realised that the terrorist narrative was playing right into the government's hands in terms of its asylum seeker policy, anti terror laws and its views on meta data retention. Any future decisions or changes to legislation could be justified under the pretence that Man Haron Monis the terrorist / refugee had slipped through the cracks of a broken system.
And it didn't end there. In the wake of the Martin Place siege, the NSW police commissioner reactivated Operation Hammerhead, which saw an increased police presence on Sydney's streets despite the fact that Man Haron Monis was dead and city was no more or less dangerous than it was on the day prior to the tragedy. One officer described the fear on people's faces as he walked around the CBD, saying 'the public are visibly scared and you can see it in their eyes'. Conceivably, the increased police presence would be the very thing driving up public fear, however real or imagined the threat may be.
There is no denying that this despicable event had a sobering effect on the people of Sydney and the wider Australian community. This has been observed in the outpouring of grief and support for the hostages and their families and in the impressive array of floral tributes that continue to grow in Martin Place. However, perhaps the most positive thing to emerge from the tragedy is the #illridewithyou campaign. The campaign sprung to life after a female Sydney commuter offered to ride with a Muslim woman on the train after she was seen removing her Hijab in fear of a racist retaliation. The gesture resulted with the hashtag trending worldwide and it was still trending three days later.
That the tragedy appears to have galvanised the wider community to unite against acts of racism, at least on public transport, is a good thing. However, #illridewithyou is speaking to a very specific kind of racism; the same kind of Islamophobia that is drummed up and pushed along by people like Tony Abbott and Rupert Murdoch, along with other factions of the media in any given news cycle. Seeking to paint Monis as a terrorist may have backfired in the faces of those who were invested in its success, but we must ask ourselves why the Mulsim / Terrorist narrative was eager to gain so much traction in the first place.
The fact is, Monis' is dead and we will never know why he did what he did. But from everything we do know, it seems unlikely that his actions were driven by political or religious motivation, but rather by his own personal grievances with the system. We know that he had grievances with the courts over his conviction for writing letters and he had very recently taken those grievances all the way to the high court where his case was subsequently thrown out. Following his High Court appearance, there was no further legal recourse for Monis to have those grievances heard. Monis also had grievances over the way he was treated (he says tortured) in prison and he had taken to the streets in the past to air those grievances to the media. Given that one of his requests was to speak to Tony Abbott, it's highly possible that he used the siege as an attempt to air those grievances to the Prime Minister.
No matter which way you look at it, this was clearly a deeply disturbed individual, who orchestrated a particularly evil act and he should not have been allowed on the streets, let alone permitted to hold a gun license. However, that more weight has been given to his religious affiliation than his mental instability or his crimes against women, speaks volumes.
The fact that Monis asked for an ISIS flag should have held no more weight than if he had asked for a Christmas tree or a purple people eater. He was a sick man who used the fiercely threatening symbolism of ISIS to make his deranged demands seem more threatening. He knew that he would be taken more seriously with the flag than without it, and the sad thing is he was right. An entire city took this madman very seriously and we need to ask ourselves why.
If the flag in the cafe window did not contain Islamic text then it's safe to say that the siege would have been reported as a hostage situation and not a terrorist attack. Only a few days earlier a man took two people hostage in a house in Brunswick, Melbourne and the only words used to describe him were ' a man'. When Anders Brevick blew up government buildings in Norway, killing 8 people before shooting dead 69 more, he was labelled a paranoid schizophrenic. Though he was later convicted of mass murder and terrorism, the Christian people in Norway did not fear a racist / cultural backlash because of his right-wing militant ideology. The fact that Brevick was a Christian extremist meant that his religious affiliation did not receive anywhere near the same media traction that Monis' has achieved.
Yet how many editorials have we read in the past few days about Man Harin Monis with the word 'terrorism' in the title? Too many to count. The truth is we were so quick to paint Monis as a terrorist that the facts became incidental, beside the point. The terrorist narrative took off at a speed that made it unstoppable even once it had been established that this was not a home grown terrorist, but rather a mentally unstable, middle-aged man. I would never defend any act of violence, political or otherwise, and what Monis did was heinous and despicable. But we need to ask ourselves why the extremist / fundamentalist narrative was so quick to bolt from the gate and we ought to be bloody skeptical the next time we sense it being tailored to fit down our throats.