Sydney ‘siege’, and scattered thoughts on ‘terror’

Some scattered thoughts on ‘terror’ this week in the aftermath of the Sydney ‘siege’ – when people were held hostage for 16 hours in a cafe in the city by a man claiming links to IS (‘Islamic State’) – closely followed by a horrific massacre of 145 school children in Peshawar, Pakistan by the Taliban.

It apparently doesn’t take much to bring a city to a standstill and grab everyone’s attention these days.  Worldwide media and political leaders focused on Sydney for the duration of the ‘siege’ by a lone gunman – of course this is mostly because no one knew for sure if he was acting alone, or linked to other groups… When these sorts of incidents occur now, most of us hold our breaths, waiting for more – multiple actors unleashing terror across a city in multiple locations, like the London bombings in 2005.

In the end this was not nearly as terrifying or deadly an attack, and was not even particularly well planned. But still, in the initial hours we didn’t know what might be unfolding, what would happen next – hence the ‘terror’ felt by many people in the city, or watching on television from near and far… Radical groups like IS are also known for beheading their hostages in chilling online videos, and none of wanted this fate to befall any of the (unknown) hostages in that cafe!

Police and other security agencies expected the worst too, and so the city went into complete ‘lockdown’. This now seems rather over-the-top for what was essentially an isolated criminal act, apparently similar in many ways to crimes police deal with almost daily, e.g. domestic violence hostage taking (I didn’t know there was such a thing!).

But of course, the point is that no one knew for sure how far this would go. That’s how ‘terror’ works – the act or outcome may be disturbing enough on its own, but what is far worse is the general atmosphere of terror and confusion that impacts a whole city – with impacts felt across the nation and globally, often for many years, even generations…

One of my first thoughts, on learning more about the gunman the next day, was how sad that a human being could become so desperate and hate-filled – blinded and numbed by fervour for a cause, a political message, religious dogma, or all of these (a lethal cocktail!)… The profile painted by the media and his previous lawyer, was of a man who was completely alone- none of the Islamic community embraced his views, while media, politicians and law enforcement agencies alike all shied from his antagonistic personality and hateful methods (e.g. sending abusive letters to families of those killed in wars).

I am reminded of the African value of ‘ubuntu’, which Bishop Desmond Tutu has explained best as meaning ‘a person is a person through other people’… This is expressing more than ‘shared humanity’ – it is a recognition of the essential role of ‘socialising’, even ‘humanising’ that deep, real, daily interactions produce in us as human beings.

Conversely, it really is not good for any of us to be alone – its impacts on mental health and general wellbeing are well known, which is why solitary confinement is used as a punishment/ torture method with such dreadful effectiveness.

The huge outpouring of grief and shock that followed this incident in Sydney clearly showed how our shared humanity is greater than the differences of culture, religion, race or other things that often separate us.

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Australians rose to the occasion with great waves of compassion and solidarity with the victims and their families. The thousands of flowers laid in Martin Place became a poetic, poignant sculpture pointing towards peace and healing, not further hatred or revenge.

At times like these, as a few people in the twittersphere said this week, it is a relief to be living in a country whose response to ‘terror’ was #illridewithyou (as controversial as the intentions or origins of this social movement may be) not #moreguns…

However, a day later there were such different reactions to the news of 145 children killed in Peshawar in Pakistan… I wondered, not for the first time, if the outpouring of grief would have been as huge, instant and unquestioning, if they had been different victims, slightly less familiar-looking. It is well known (by media and academics, at least) that two white faces are easier to identify with than many, many of other colours.

This is referred to as ‘news values’ – a story affecting just ONE of the ‘elite’ (e.g. people who are white, or western, or rich or powerful, not necessarily a celebrity or political leader – that is, sadly, most of ‘us’ reading or writing ‘blogs’ like this one) is considered ‘newsworthy’ – people will care. Not so a story affecting THOUSANDS of people from ‘developing’ countries, e.g. Africans (think: the current Ebola crisis).

Of course thoughts like this lead to questions about our involvement in the US-led ‘war on terror’…and the many wars fought by the US and its allies (‘us’) in the very part of the world the gunman was from (Iran). What of all those killed by ‘our’ soldiers and ‘our’ allies – ‘collateral damage’ they call it – the unintended side effects of the ‘war on terror’…sending drones now to supposedly kill known ‘terror’ groups and their leaders. But in fact killing thousands of civilians, most of them children.

This is the ‘elephant in the room’ in discussions about the ‘Sydney siege’ this past week. This awful incident is one of the unwanted and undiscussed side effects of our involvement in US led wars and involvement on (mostly Arab) foreign soil, brought home.

No, I am not making these links simply because of my background in peace studies and development studies. In this case, this was this mad man’s supposed ‘reason’ – he spent many years campaigning against this before committing this final dreadful ‘act of terror’.

But of course nothing can justify ‘terrorism’ – I am reminded of the U2 song ‘Peace on Earth’ with the line ‘their lives are bigger than any big idea’. No religion, no ideology, no ‘issue’ is an excuse to take human life. Nothing is worth more than life.

Nothing justifies what this mad man did. No matter what point he was trying to make, threatening or taking human life is so abhorrent that any real message there may have been is lost in our outrage.

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In the same way-

Nothing justifies what the Taliban and others like them are doing anywhere – the massacre of school children being the most recent in a long list of terrible cruelties.

Nothing justifies the gruesome IS campaign in Syria and that region, also now spilling over into violent acts committed around the world in their name…

Nothing justifies what Israel did in Gaza a few months ago…

Nothing justifies what ‘we’ have been doing in these wars – where bombing areas full of innocent civilians, many of them children, sending drones into civilian areas, ignoring human rights in various torture camps…

In fact, the ‘war on terror’ is destabilising the world and undermining peace even as its proponents aim, or claim to be, doing the opposite!

Let me say this as directly as I can, and I know many will find it offensive, but try not to shoot the messenger- rather have a little think about the message and what we can all do to change this awful current truth:

The more these powerful vested interests fight wars in ‘our’ name in parts of the world most of us have never seen, the more they increase the risks and threats to our lives and futures right here on our home soil.

For this reason I am more alarmed by ‘the war on terror’ and its inevitable side effects, than the admittedly scary ‘lone wolf’ /mad men or even the terror groups themselves.

Because our governments are killing innocent people in other parts of the world… There will always be the threat of people like this – mad men or groups acting in more coordinated ways – either alienated residents of our own countries or others who will come to our shores …and threaten our lives (us ‘innocent’ civilians who have nothing to do with our governments actions, since we never get to vote on whether we want these wars or drones or torture camps…!!) – in ‘retaliation’.

So we need to seek, no DEMAND better ways of ensuring ‘National Security’ – and these ways involve BUILDING peace (building/ ensuring equality, social justice, dialogue, reconciliation and healing) …not making more wars.

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