Commentary | 17 December 2014

Sydney crisis a test of spirit

Sydney crisis a test of spirit

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

17 December 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

Sydney crisis a test of spirit

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

17 December 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

Australians are responding to the siege with a strength and a largeness of spirit made possible by the peculiar qualities of this country, writes Rory Medcalf.

How Australians think and behave over the next few days will matter greatly to whether the horrific crime of the Sydney siege will change this country in any way for the worse.

It is easy enough to say that Australia has somehow lost its innocence or suddenly grown up. But a greater truth is that Australians are responding with a strength and a largeness of spirit made possible by the peculiar qualities of this country – a ­multicultural democracy allergic to ­bombast and intimidation.

In fact, many Australians are no strangers to terrorism or other forms of politically-motivated criminal violence. Australians have directly known its effects in New York, Mumbai, London and of course Bali. And as travelling global citizens, Australians have been caught up in other murderous currents this year, in the skies above Ukraine.

Terrorist intent on Australian soil is not new, at least from the 1978 Hilton bombing onward. Last decade, security and ­intelligence agencies thwarted elaborate plotting before an atrocity could be committed. This year we have heard repeated warnings of the deadly risk of lone attention-seekers claiming jihadist inspiration.

So it was probably a matter of time before Australia's luck ran out, despite heightened awareness and efforts by the security ­services. This can be no consolation for the families of the two innocent victims, or for the many individuals traumatised.

But it is hard to think of a more vivid proof of the futility and failure of terrorism than the resilience and rallying together of ­Australians from many backgrounds including the voices of many faiths in Martin Place ­yesterday afternoon.

This is a far more powerful image to show the world than any sterile propaganda.

It will impress the world that the incident has led to immediate calls for tolerance, understanding and cohesion across multicultural Australia. Muslim community ­figures have spoken out against the crime, and sensible voices have emphasised the need to avoid any backlash against Muslim Australians. Australians will take from this harrowing experience other lessons too.

By all accounts, the response by the security forces was professional and coordinated. It appears that their forceful intervention in the early hours of this morning occurred after the gunman had started shooting and any delayed response would have cost more lives. What began as a crime ended in police action.

Crisis-response capabilities and mechanisms long in preparation swung into action. If they did not know it before, ordinary Australians now know there are formidable and patient forces on their side, and that being able to rely on effective security and intelligences services is very much in their interests. For the most part, the public messaging was calm and disciplined. While a competitive media could not help but report the crisis around-the-clock, and this provided the attacker with a kind of ­publicity, they ended up showing a ­commendable degree of solidarity and restraint in some areas.

Most importantly, the perpetrator's demands were not widely broadcast at the time. This turned the oxygen of publicity that terrorists so crave into something less poisonous. It is a vitally important precedent that will help to discourage future incidents.

In other ways, too, the Australian media lifted their game as the crisis dragged on – mostly responding to police requests not to inadvertently breach operational security in the quest for powerful images.

Let's not pretend that the rest of us are not complicit. Social media has helped magnify and at times distort the picture. Early on, for instance, I saw one irresponsible tweet claiming the attacker had planted devices all over the city.

The Mumbai siege in 2008 proved the impact of social media in terrorist situations: there the attackers and their handlers were reportedly using all forms of media to keep track of the Indian security forces, which may well have added to the duration and lethality of those attacks.

It is fair to assume that Australia's media, and social media users, have learned now the overriding need for restraint and respect in such situations.

Some have focused on the question of whether this was a terrorist act or a crime. The methods were those of terrorism, and terrorism itself involves a whole set of crimes. Once, terrorists did not want to be called as such; the IRA, for instance, insisted on being seen as freedom fighters. Now the currency of language about political ­violence has changed, and some people see the label of terrorist as almost too kind – providing an unwarranted layer of meaning and purpose to acts of murderous criminality.

In a sense, whether this particular instance of criminal terrorism was more criminal than terrorist does not matter.

What matters is that it was an act neither of war nor of faith, and should in no way be dignified as such.

Rory Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute.