In Sydney, quiet reflection is the order of the day

The sheer mass of flowers laid in Martin Place after the deadly siege last week reflected public sentiment. Photo: Nikki Short / EPA
The sheer mass of flowers laid in Martin Place after the deadly siege last week reflected public sentiment. Photo: Nikki Short / EPA

For many Sydneysiders, the unfolding siege in Martin Place last Tuesday followed a pattern all too familiar to those of us who’ve grown up in cities such as London and New York. I’m currently on holiday in Sydney, and, as with many here, my first inkling that something had occurred was a brief reference on Twitter, which sent me to turn on the TV.

The gravity of the crisis was immediately apparent. Yet, with a trickle of hostages making their escape, and with none of the extreme and instant bloodshed that so often accompanies incidents such as these, it began to feel like something other than a coordinated terrorist attack. By the time I went to bed that night it was with a feeling of hope that all might be peacefully resolved by sunrise.

It was not to be. At 2am police stormed the café where Iranian-born Man Haron Monis was still at bay along with his remaining captives. A fierce firefight ensured, and in the resulting chaos, Monis and two hostages were killed.

Five days on we know far more about the perpetrator than we did in those panicky hours following his attack. Monis, a self-proclaimed Muslim cleric, proved to be both an oddity and a lone wolf.

He was already well known to the authorities, with a string of convictions to his name. The day before the siege, he had been refused permission to appeal against a conviction for sending offensive letters to the families of dead Australian soldiers.

Whether or not police should have stormed the building will remain a hotly contested question. But whatever the wisdom of their strategy, there has been a commendably restrained reaction from the Australian public to the siege itself.

For instance, it has since been revealed that Monis was on bail at the time of his attack.

Such a revelation would normally provide a rich breeding ground for the worst type of tub-thumping xenophobia, particularly as Monis was granted asylum here in 1996, and had since spent considerable amounts of time living on government benefits.

But to everyone’s credit, there’s been precious little appetite for retribution.

A deranged fantasist is the same in any language, and rather than use the tragedy to stir up racial tensions (as surely would have been the case with some shades of the political spectrum had it occurred in the UK), the Australian people have generally reacted with quiet fortitude.

Most politicians, too, have reacted with uncharacteristic sobriety. Rather than hurl brickbats at one another, both main parties have recognised that there are no ready answers.

Exactly why a man as violent and unbalanced as Monis should have been allowed to be at large is one of many pressing questions facing Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, but all shades of opinion realise that knee jerk responses will help nobody.

Indeed, the only immediate legacy of the siege has been to reignite, albeit temporarily, the debate on domestic gun control, with one cross-bench MP proclaiming that if the ownership of firearms had been permissible for all Australians, the odds are that one of those held captive last Tuesday would have had the means to kill Monis before the calamitous conclusion.

Thankfully that view is cutting little ice with Sydneysiders, or so it seemed to me on Friday when I ventured into Martin Place to view the mounting display of floral tributes being placed there. Aussies want fewer guns on their streets, not more. There is no desire here for revenge and retribution, merely for quiet reflection.

In the three months I have spent in this extraordinary country I have found it to be one of the most relaxed places I’ve ever visited. It would be a cruel irony if the events in Martin Place last week resulted in any change of tone.

So, while the politicians try to figure it all out, Sydneysiders quietly get on with the job of living and working in one of the world’s most hospitable and welcoming cities.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer usually based in London

Published: December 20, 2014 04:00 AM


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