It feels like terror has come to our home town. After this week’s events, Sydney joins New York, London, Madrid, Mumbai and Ottawa on the list of great cities visited by politically motivated violence since 2001.
The Sydney siege was unlike those other incidents, of course. Mercifully, it does not seem to have been an attack planned months in advance by hardened terrorists determined to inflict mass casualties. This was an act by a lone wolf, not a pack of wolves.
The perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, held extremist views and attempted to appropriate the ideas and imagery of Islamic State. But he was also mentally unbalanced and had a long record of offences. Notwithstanding his battle flag, he was a criminal as much as a terrorist.
The security experts may conclude that these events in Martin Place do not fit the classical definition of terrorism. But most Sydneysiders, who lived through the anxiety and distress of recent days, will disagree.
Australians are not innocents when it comes to terrorism. Nearly a dozen Australians were killed in the September 11 attack in 2001. A year later, 88 died in the Bali bombings in Indonesia. Australians died in the 2005 Bali bombings, the 2005 London bombings, and the 2009 Jakarta hotel attacks. All those incidents took place thousands of kilometres away. This event occurred in the middle of Sydney, in a warm and charming establishment where city workers indulged in the modern Aussie ritual of a morning cappuccino or flat white.
This act will certainly leave its mark on Australians. We mourn the loss of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson, who were so loved by their families and are now loved by all of us. But it won’t disfigure our country.
The Australian authorities will feel compelled to do more to protect their citizens. In recent months, in response to the concern over Islamic State and its supporters in Australia, the federal government has sought greater surveillance powers, imposed greater limits on media reporting of intelligence matters and placed restrictions on travel to conflict zones in the Middle East.
The danger of foreign fighters is very real for Australia. The turmoil in the Middle East is incubating a new generation of jihadists. Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters, including perhaps 200 Australians. Many will return to our country with lethal new skills and dangerous international connections.
It is hard to know what more the government can do. Watch lists can be tightened further. Gun laws can be examined. It is important to inquire into the nature of Monis’s interactions with the government and the legal system, yet it is always difficult to guard against the actions of individuals.
In other respects, the hostage-taker’s actions will change nothing about our country.
Certainly, Monis’s deeds are unlikely to alter Australia’s behaviour in the world.
Canberra will continue to prosecute those international causes in which it believes, including the military effort against Islamic State in Iraq.
If anything, the Martin Place siege may encourage Australians to lean further forwards, rather than backwards.
This attack reminded us that we are not spectators in the world’s troubles, we are participants. We know that the moat that encircles our continent cannot protect us. We must find our security in the world, not from it.
And the perpetrator has failed to tear the multicultural fabric of Australian society. There may be a few who lash out in anger at Muslims. But, in the main, the response to the Martin Place siege has been compassionate, tolerant and free of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Monday’s siege in Martin Place took place under a beautiful blue sky. That felt wrong. Tuesday’s rain reflected the city’s mood much better.
Yet have no doubt: before long, the Sydney sun will re-emerge.