December 15th, 2014 9:44 AM
As you all know….just a little over 2 weeks ago, the 18 employees and customers of Lindt Cafe in Martin Place, a neighborhood a bit like Denman in Vancouver, or Belltown in Seattle…essentially almost downtown, was taken into hostage by Man Haron Monis. Monis was an Iraqi-Australian with a criminal history and what seems to be a great deal of mental instability. As you know I was in Sydney during this time, in Ultimo…a neighborhood across the harbor, a 15 minute walk.
It has taken me a little while to process what has happened, in part because I’ve been so busy, and because details about this event took a while to be released.
This is how my day went.
Terror is a morning activity
I awoke as usual, getting ready for another day of working on my show. My companion S was off working in some swanky tourist casino renovating one of its many gala rooms. I was due for a meeting that day to discuss some things for my upcoming play at a coffee house yet to be determined. I opened Facebook, and a friend in the states had sent me a message asking if I was alright. I checked the news and read about the attack.
The skyscrapers in Martin Place are visible from my balcony, and I went out there to look at them. With terrorism all over the media, visions of World Trade Center towers flashed behind my eyes. I had watched those attacks live through a television, and now I wondered casually if I would see more tragedy now in person.
There was nothing to see of course, just helicopters.
I tried to focus on work but it proved difficult with the onslaught of messages coming in through social media. The city had a shared eerie vibe. I come from a police and military family. Dad was always coming home with stories about drunk drivers, abused pregnant woman, highway accident fatalities, and unsavory jokes made by the local coroner coming to “pick up the pieces.” He was never heavy about these things. Sometimes they were hilarious.
We took it for granted that Dad went to Desert Storm and was out there in one of the highest auto accident capitals in the country every night. We took it for granted that we always had guns in the house and an NRA sticker prominently displayed on our sliding glass door. We didn’t have time for worry- for him or for us. It just wasn’t part of my upbringing.
When Columbine happened, when 9/11 happened, when I barely missed the 2005 London train bombings by a few hours because my flight from Spain en route to Vancouver via Heathrow was delayed (forcing me to ship my luggage from my London hostel rather than retrieve it), when my brother was sent to Iraq, and then Afghanistan after someone I went to high school with had died in combat there…..we didn’t worry.
Call it functional delusion. It’s a family trait. Learned or inherited it’s caused some of my best and worse decisions…but at least I didn’t worry.
I had planned to go about my day. And then I heard the trains were shutting down and I was intensely asked by loved ones to stay put. S was put on lock-down and wasn’t allowed to leave. There were rumors of explosives. A quick internet search led me to US reports (of course they were all over this….these are their mythical monsters in someone else’s playground.) In the comments of those US reports were tons of Americans snarking at Australia’s less crisis driven culture. “I bet you wish you had your guns now” one said.
I thought of my years living in Canada.
Just about 2 months prior to Martin Place, I had told some Aussie friends about my personal stance on gun laws, terrorism, and in particular the US/Canadian differences and how my opinions have shifted over the years. Experience is a powerful thing, and although Dad always came home, and my brother came home tour after tour, and I have only ever brushed against this kind of tragedy….I no longer believe the theory that an armed populace and racial profiling are the means to prevent or limit crime or acts of terror.
None of my Canadian friends had grown up with guns. Gun related violence was lower. Canadians are a cautious people, but by no means paranoid of their neighbors or dangers from abroad. (I generalize.) I had realized that my learned or inherited trait of “not worrying” was actually “not feeling.” I don’t think we didn’t worry because we had guns and were “prepared.” My Canadian friends had as little worry as I had without each having a personal armory in their homes. They actually weren’t worried because they had less to be afraid of. They had collectively decided to deal with the inevitable criminal element through dis-armament. And it works great! It turns out an alternative to gun related crimes isn’t just more guns, it’s also less guns. In this environment, we have different motivations for things. Rather than….”I won’t harm so and so, because they could shoot me,” we think “I won’t harm so and so, because ?” (If you don’t know the end of this, think on it for a bit.) Rather than “I need a gun in case the military turns on us, or the police turn on us,” we think “We are in charge of the military and the police, and if we don’t like something about what they are doing, we can change it.” Which I ask you, is the better example of a free society and democracy?
These differences in attitude between the US and Canada about security, violence, and war…combined with an intact memory of past conflicts they may have been involved in, have influenced how they interact with the world. I argued to my friends that Canada, like Australia, was largely a safer place, but few Americans would ever fully recognize that until they lived outside of it for a significant period of time.
And then the Ottawa shooting happened. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was a Canadian of Libyan decent who had only recently converted to Islam. He was known to be mentally unstable with a history of criminal offense and drug addiction. He killed a sentry at Ottawa’s National War Memorial and then stormed Parliament before being shot himself. Nothing like this has happened in Canada since 1966.
Where it hurts
Humility struck. How can any of us “prepare” for senseless crime anymore than we can prepare for cancer? In each of these cases, mental illness played a significant role in the crimes. (I would argue mental illness plays a role in all crimes but that’s another post entirely.) All the guns and the money in the world can’t save people from being the random victim of unfortunate circumstances. Divine plan or no. No matter where you live.
So now we have a choice. How are we going to respond to it? At this point on the day of the Siege, I stayed at home for a while, then changed my meeting to a close by place; my less hindered Australian friend was kind enough to come to me. We were surprised the conflict was still going on 7 hours later. Australians on social media were cooperating with the police, limiting what they said about police movements, being careful not to give this event the weight of terrorism.
The devil you know
Terrorism is a hot word. It has been since 2001 when a certain world leader had very clever advisers who intentionally made the target of a new war vague while keeping the tactics of that war very precise…a very fancy bit of propaganda. In the words of Alan Moore (paraphrasing) “Ideas are bulletproof.” You can never end a war on an idea with a gun and I would argue we are no more near to being rid of it than we were over 10 years ago. Terror is fear, and fear has many propagators.
Both of these crimes were committed by unwell people, “lone wolves” who claimed to act in the name of terrorism, political parties, and religious sects, but evidence shows they are isolated. This makes it harder for us to cope with in a way, because there is no bad guy to attack. In a way that president was absolutely correct, but not as he or his advisers had imagined. We are at war with ideas, with fears that we can’t target. But US culture is heavily influenced by puritanical divisions of good and evil and it will impose this on anything that doesn’t make sense. (Just ask John Patrick Shanley.) And so we have profiling.
Anyone can pick up a flag and say they act on behalf of some larger power. That could be a god, a government, or a movement. We all want to belong to something greater, and when we don’t feel that we belong in our communities, we look for some other path we can belong to for strength, no matter how unfavorable that path is. Belonging is that powerful.
Part of the Solution
If we must profile…could we begin to look at disadvantaged groups that are in need of mental health services and social support? These are increasingly shown to be the victims of black-and-white-thinking cultures. Any group that has a lot of black-and-white-thinking, is bound to end up the evil to someone else’s good– because these are the terms they are dealing in. Could we find ways to accept them in ways they haven’t been accepted before? Could we expand their worlds by introducing them to other ways of being, just as I had been introduced to Canadian values? Could we show them that they can maintain their identities while gaining new ones in community with us?
There will always be people we can’t reason with. That is going to exist. But I think there is a great deal of reparation that can be done before we get to prejudice (otherwise known as fear-based discrimination). Just look at Australia, a country colonized by criminals, and yet their incarceration rate…a civilized 143 per 100,000 people (compared to the US number, 717 per 100,000 people.) 😉
Terror isn’t something criminals create, it’s something we create. The monster in the closet is us (or our fears), which is why no amount of “intelligence” will ever locate and eradicate it. In the meantime, we’ve been shooting in the dark.
After my meeting I saw the #illridewithyou campaign floating around on twitter and Facebook. This is a profound prevention against prejudice and I’m sorry to say I don’t think I would have seen it in the US. They say Australia is racist, and in many ways it is, but I do not think the racism is winning, or at least I hope not.
The High Cost of Loving
The next day I was very sad to discover that three people had died as a result of the Sydney Siege, including the perpetrator. I had not expected it to end this way, and that it may have gone this way because a brave soul, a gay manager of the café, tried to end the conflict by forcibly taking the gun from Monis unsuccessfully…compounded my sorrow.
The same Australian friend I had coffee with came with me to pay condolences at Martin Place that day. It was eerily silent in a different way. No one was on their phone. No googling, no calls, no texts, only pictures. We joined the huge cue placing flowers on the ground. I didn’t have any cash, and my friend kindly offered to buy my bouquet for me. It was a good thing to do. There were many visible religious minorities represented, Muslims, and Hasidic Jews, and Sikhs, and others. All present and mourning with the rest of us. I am not Australian, but I felt this as a personal loss. I think any human would. In the middle of the field of flowers, a sign attached to one bouquet
Little children stood on tip-toes peeking through the holes of the cloth covered fence still up in front of the destroyed Lindt Cafe, trying to see what we were seeing. And I thought, This is the Australia they now live in. I hope they do something good with it. For them as for us post 9/11 folks, we would be in a different cohort altogether than those before or after us.
There, but for the grace….
It turns out at the end of 2014, what makes our countries so different, isn’t what happens to them, but how they respond to what happens. Although I roll my eyes at Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot being glad that the US president has been informed about the Siege (what? why? Is he on duty for this one?), I AM glad President Barack Obama responded as he did. According to the White House:
“Obama praised the “Australian public’s embrace of #illridewithyou and the Muslim leaders who have disavowed the actions of the hostage taker”, and “Australia’s rejection of any violence taken in the name of religion and the fear this violence seeks to stoke.” (thanks Wikipedia)
A wise leader does not a wise populace make, and vice-versa. This is true for all of us. I was glad, despite the danger, that I was here to learn yet another way people can deal with the fear we all must face. May this New Year be better and safer for all of us.