Gunman’s cafe attack leaves Australia reeling
A hostage crisis — the act of just one dangerous man — ended in bloodshed last night after police besieged a Sydney cafe for 16 hours. Is civilisation more fragile than we think?
When Nathan Grivas arrived for work at a popular Sydney cafe on Monday morning, he encountered a disturbing sight: the familiar face of a colleague pressed against the windowpane, unmistakably scared. Inside the cafe, customers and staff stood huddled in a line — and among them stalked a man armed with a gun. Grivas ran.
In the ensuing hours, Australian media identified the situation as a hostage crisis. At around 9.45 am, it emerged, a man had walked into the Lindt Cafe, produced a shotgun from his sports bag and locked the door, capturing 21 civilians. Shortly afterwards, a black flag sometimes associated with the militants known as ‘IS’ (so-called Islamic State) appeared at the cafe window.
The news sent a chill through Sydney that reverberated instantly around the world. Newspaper websites buzzed with live blogs. Radios and 24-hour news channels hunted feverishly for instant analysis and eyewitness accounts.
By evening, police had identified the gunman as Man Haron Monis, an Iranian refugee known all too well to local police. Monis had more than 40 charges for sexual offences and one involving a murder. He has appeared on the news before after abusive messages to the families of dead soldiers.
Monis was a self-proclaimed Muslim cleric known for preaching violence, but he was not linked with IS or other terrorist groups. ‘This is a one-off random individual’, as one local reporter said.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, after 16 hours of siege, a roar of gunfire shattered the tension. Weeping hostages streamed from the cafe; paramedics flooded in. The explosive finale of the siege was fatal to the gunman and at least two of his victims.
Throughout the crisis, Sydney citizens behaved with bravery and calm. Twitter users responded to fears of an anti-Islamic backlash with the supportive #illridewithyou hashtag, expressing solidarity with Australian Muslims.
Nevertheless, a day of fear, grief and anxiety has left Australia on edge.
An awful anomaly?
If one man with a nasty grudge and nothing to lose can cause such terror, some will wonder, how can any of us ever feel safe? Surrounded by the trappings of comfortable civilisation, it is easy to feel far removed from any possibility of violence and horror. Then you turn on the news and the mirage dissolves.
But others are wary of this interpretation. Extreme acts like that of the Sydney gunman are designed to provoke precisely this fear and uncertainty, and the frenzied media coverage only makes it worse. We should recognise attacks like this for what they are: tragic, baffling anomalies. We must not allow a single senseless act to distort our view of human nature.
- Are you scared of terrorism and random acts of violence? Why / why not?
- ‘Sometimes the media does terrorists' job for them.’ What could this quotation mean? Do you agree?
- Why do people commit violent and self-destructive acts? In groups, make a list of possible reasons, then share your answers with the class.
- Imagine you are the Australian Prime Minister. Write a speech in response to the hostage crisis explaining how you believe your nation must react.
Some People Say...
“With violence, human nature is the problem but also the solution.’Steven Pinker”
What do you think?
Q & A
- These attacks seem to be happening more and more. Should I be worried?
- On one level, of course: it’s natural and right to be shocked by violence and admirable to empathise with the victims. But if you live in Australia, the USA or most European countries, there’s no need to worry too much about your personal safety. You’re more likely to be killed by lightning than terrorists.
- But couldn’t that change?
- It could. There are many parts of the world where violence and terrorism are genuine threats to ordinary people, and peace and security are not guaranteed anywhere. But it’s easy to get a distorted sense of the scale of risk from news organisations that dramatise scary and exciting events while ignoring the more mundane facts of daily reality.
- Black flag
- Although it has been adopted by several terrorist organisations, the flag and its inscription are not in themselves violent or extremist. It simply affirms a key article of the Islamic faith: that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.
- Islamic state
- A group of militants who have spread through war-torn Iraq and Syria this year, leaving a trail of bloodshed and brutality. The name is misleading: ‘IS’ does not represent mainstream Islam, nor is it a state.
- This phrase was started after a Twitter user saw a woman remove her hijab on the train for fear of being judged.
- An anomaly is an example that diverges from the norm. In statistics and science, anomalies are often dismissed as extreme products of random variation, not relevant to the general trend.