The hostage situation in Sydney, Australia, concluded overnight, but it remains international news as details filter through and the events of yesterday are given a complete context. The initial fear was that this was a terrorist attack, fueled largely by the appearance of a black flag with Arabic writing in the window of the Lindt cafe, held up by terrified hostages pressed against the glass. It is only after the dust has settled that the truth comes out: a disturbed and unstable man held up the cafe in order to make a politically motivated point that had little to do with wider events and more to do with his own personal hubris. The damage he did to the city is not insurmountable, but only if people respond with the calm and care that he so belligerently lacked. Already there are responses on social media and in the city itself that point to an outcome full of compassion. But things could have been very different in Sydney and that “what if?” is what may haunt people in the coming days.
For people who do not live in Sydney, it may be difficult to understand the scale of this event. Only a small portion of the actual city was closed down in order to deal with the siege, but its effects were felt in a very large area. The Central Business District (CBD) is an important hub for Sydneysiders and even if they live relatively far out, many people work in the area. Commuters are a predominant workforce. Like many metropolitan cities, buses and trains are veins carrying the lifeblood of commerce, cafes a necessary source of energy and the atmosphere is of a tight-knit group of relative strangers. No matter who someone is, if they work in the CBD then they are part of a community that is connected through shared experience.
The events of yesterday have become part of that shared experience and make up a scar shared by many people in the city. It is this shared trauma that everyone now has to deal with and understanding is one of the first steps in recovering. At this point, however, there are conflicting explanations for why this happened. One is a racist, angry, retributive knee-jerk reaction. One man who visited the scene yesterday was removed by police for shouting anti-Islamic sentiment. In a video posted by the Sydney Morning Herald, he can be seen standing in the center of a ringed crowd as other people shout back at him. This negative view has been prevalent enough to make some Muslim women afraid of being outside while wearing their traditional head covering. They fear reprisals from those who blame Muslims for what happened.
Thankfully, Sydneysiders are, by and large, a better group than the small amount of bigots who threaten to make life a continuing terror for some. The Twitter hashtag “I’ll Ride With You” is trending worldwide right now as a symbol of solidarity with Muslims who now fear they will be harmed. It was started by one commuter who witnessed a woman removing her head covering and volunteered to sit with her and be her support as she rode the buses and trains in the city. Countless commuters have put their hands up through this campaign. Sydneysiders seem intent on proving to the world that no matter what, they are different from those who seek revenge or those people who were threatening to make Sydney the scene of more violence rather than peace.
As an adopted resident of Sydney, I am personally proud of the positive reactions that have been engendered by this tragedy. It seems as though good people are coming out of the woodwork to prove that violence and fear cannot win. This has made people stand up in peaceful and powerful opposition to the fear that the gunman intended to create and that the prejudiced would like to see continue. It is even more personal for me because my partner works only a couple of blocks away from the scene in Martin Place. Love and solidarity have done much to drive out our fears about what might happen next and have enabled us to live our lives (almost) as normal, just like the police and officials in the state and city have encouraged.
Facts are another comforting piece of the puzzle of recovery for Sydney. Most importantly, the fact that this was not an instance of terrorism is important and should not be lost in any of the reporting about Martin Place. The lone gunman of yesterday was not connected to any terrorist group, not was this a premeditated plan by any terrorist cell. Man Haron Monis was an unstable man who styled himself as a Muslim cleric and sometimes called himself a sheikh. He was neither of these. He has been revealed to be a narcissistic, violent, serial offender against women who used whatever means he could to draw attention to himself for no cause other than his own aggrandizement. The news outlets here in Australia have been showing footage of him protesting alleged mistreatment during a time of incarceration, holding a sign proclaiming himself a political prisoner and dramatically chained to a railing nearby. This claim had no basis in fact. What is a fact, however, is that he was being indicted over numerous counts of sexual assault and was connected to the brutal murder of his ex-wife.
Man Haron Monis, by all accounts, was a single violent man who used the guise of religion to draw attention to himself. Yesterday, he succeeded in doing just that. But the world should not allow him to continue to do so after he is dead. Hatred and bigotry will only succeed in furthering Man Haron Monis’ sick fantasy and it will cause harm to so many other innocent people. This is where Sydney must lead the world and has done so. Sydney people will ride with their Muslim neighbors, friends, coworkers and fellow commuters because they know what is right. Some people may wish that things were different yesterday, but from here on Sydney is facing the facts and they are proving that they believe in peace and compassion. Maybe through this, Sydneysiders can change the world for the better. Maybe that is the best outcome in all of this. I certainly believe it is.
Op-Ed By Lydia Bradbury