Yesterday began with a siege in a café in the bustling heart of our largest city, and Australians found themselves glued to their screens in a way that would be all too familiar to Times of Israel readers. The crucial difference was that Australia’s media and politicians weren’t up to the task. The coverage was sensationalist and showed no forethought as to its effect on the hostages remaining trapped inside. The analysis, if it can be called that, sounded more like propaganda. I am used to the Israel-bashing of our media, but I thought that the fact that the hostages were ordinary Australians buying their morning coffee would have elicited a little more sympathy. However, the scramble to find euphemisms to dissociate the ‘incident’ from Muslim terrorism verged on the obscene.
This morning we woke to the news that it was all over, with two hostages dead, many injured, and the entire nation left bewildered. The images of a black Muslim flag juxtaposed with Lindt’s ‘Merry Christmas’ greeting and terrified café staff pressed against the window have been replaced by those of paramedics evacuating the injured, hostages fleeing in abject fear, and mourners placing flowers at the scene. Flags will be at half-mast all day.
The mood has altered but the euphemisms haven’t. Man Haron Monis (a.k.a. Sheikh Haron) is still being called a ‘lone gunman’. He is described as a ‘self-styled’ Iranian cleric and an ‘unstable individual’. The emphasis is on his ‘unclear motivations’ and that he was acting alone. It seems to have escaped an absurd number of people that a terrorist is someone who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. Monis was a Muslim leader with a Facebook following in the tens of thousands. He may have been a nutter, a violent misogynist criminal, and relatively small fry, but he was by no means insignificant, and he was most certainly a terrorist.
While it is a relief that Monis doesn’t appear to have been part of a larger plot, it doesn’t diminish his actions. When it comes to those who mourn Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, it is no consolation that he acted alone. So too, as happens all too often, when a lone terrorist strikes in Israel. It’s not ‘just a lone gunman’ as we so often hear people say, as if that renders it un-newsworthy. It’s about the victims and the terror he strikes into the hearts of ordinary people. Because it only takes one, and it can happen at any time.
This is something Australians don’t seem to have learnt even after this morning’s horrific conclusion. Sure, it could have been much worse and let us give thanks that it wasn’t, but there are two people who will never come home to their loved ones, cut down in their prime, who were yesterday full of hopes and dreams for the future. And there are others who will bear the scars for the rest of their lives, most of them invisible. One does not simply ‘return to normal’ after such an experience.
The whitewash has already begun, though. Monis is being portrayed in the news and social media as a ‘lone madman’ and ‘violent criminal’. These descriptions are not strictly untrue, but he was first and foremost a terrorist. He brought Sydney and most of the nation to a standstill. We seem to have already forgotten the city workers being evacuated through windows and down ladders; the closure of the Opera House, the Supreme Court, and many other public places; and the threat of four bombs in undisclosed locations. Australia has never seen anything like this before. If he’d wanted to go on a killing spree he could have, but he didn’t. Instead he demanded an Islamic State flag and to talk to the Prime Minister.
Even the hostages’ own statements are being swept under the carpet, such as Marcia Mikhael’s post on Facebook: “He is now threatening to start killing us. We need help right now. The man wants the world to know that Australia is under attack by the Islamic State.” Perhaps most disturbingly, no one’s making the link between the Minister for Foreign Affairs’ outrage at the radicalisation of children less than two months ago involving “four senior members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Sheikh Haron” and yesterday’s siege using the Hizb-ut-Tahrir flag. I truly cannot comprehend how any rational human being can conclude that this wasn’t a case of politically-motivated violence.
There has also been an unseemly haste in declaring our solidarity with the Muslim community. While it can be acknowledged that most Australian Muslims are as shocked as the rest of us at what has happened, I have to point out that they’re not the victims and shouldn’t be treated as such. I sincerely hope there will be no ‘backlash’ against those who have come to this country fleeing the extremism of their Muslim brethren – they have suffered enough – but all the same I also hope we can keep our focus on the actual victims and not create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The I’ll-ride-with-you campaign is a response to a figment of our imagination, caricaturing Australians as irrational bigots and Muslims as the persecuted. We may be irrational for believing in a backlash that doesn’t exist, but the rush to offer Muslims a friendly escort home proves we’re far from closed-minded.
Monis’s coreligionists have condemned his actions, but this an act of common decency and not particularly praiseworthy. I am glad that Muslims are laying flowers in tribute along with everyone else, but if we want them to integrate into our society we must treat them as fellow Australians and not create a media circus every time they behave like normal human beings. Making a fuss only separates them even more from the wider community and distracts from the people we should be thinking about most. This is the time to laud people like the café manager who died trying to disarm the terrorist, the police who risked their lives to save the hostages, and the paramedics and other medical staff who treated the wounded.
Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the best way to respond to terrorism is with defiance. We must refuse to live in fear. We must continue to buy our coffee in Lindt cafés and our chocolate in Max Brenner stores. But this defiance is merry gullibility if we do not first acknowledge the threat and existence of terrorism, that there is much of which to be afraid, that the darkness threatens to envelop us.
As we light the first of our Hanukkah candles this evening, we do so in the knowledge that it is not in a room full of sunlight. Darkness is falling in Australia, not least in our own minds. It’s time for us to call a spade a spade. If we can’t even call terrorism by its name or, worse, feel compelled to blame the victim, we are complicit in our own downfall. There may be no reasonable way to root out every single potential terrorist in our country, but we can stifle such impulses by illuminating the truth and stamping upon lies and deceptions. The first step at this juncture is to call the ‘siege’ an ‘attack’ and the ‘lone gunman’ a ‘terrorist’. Unless we can admit these basic facts, the darkness will continue to descend.