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The Sydney Siege: Lessons in Restraint and Perspective

This week’s hostage crisis in Sydney shocked Australia to an almost complete standstill. For over sixteen tense and frightening hours, the nation watched intensely as Man Haron Monis held seventeen hostages captive in a CBD café that tragically ended with the deaths of two hostages, Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson, as well as Monis himself. During this time, Monis forced Dawson, Johnson, and his other hostages to hold black and white Islamic flags up against the café’s windows, sparking immediate concerns that the hostage situation had political motivations that were linked to the current global Jihadi movement professed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL).

While it has been several years since Australians felt the direct sting of targeted terrorist attacks in the aftermath of the 2002 and 2005 Bali Bombings, a potential terrorist threat on Australian soil created an unprecedented cause for alarm. Major roads and train lines were closed off. Nearby buildings and the U.S. Consulate were evacuated. Major Sydney landmarks, including its famous Opera House, were checked for possible bomb placements. Yet amidst the panic, the government and police reaction to the crisis was noticeably calm, patient and restrained. “Go about your business as usual” was Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s message to the Australian people during the crisis, assuring the public that Australian police and security organisations had the situation under control. New South Wales Premier Mike Baird and Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione made similar statements, urging people to remain calm and trust the police’s handling of the crisis.

Acting restrainedly and patiently appeared to work. Taking such an approach allowed police to evaluate the situation, clear the area, evacuate key buildings, and check for potential bomb placements around the city. Perhaps most importantly, it also gave time for five hostages to escape. Responding more aggressively and immediately might not have allowed these hostages to escape and could have resulted in more fatalities.

Needless to say it is most unfortunate and sad that not all of the hostages could be saved, but it is important to remember that the crisis could have developed quite differently over the course of those sixteen hours if government and police officials had not been patient with Monis.

New South Wales Police, however, had serious problems convincing all of the local media to exercise similar restraint. In order to safeguard against the possibility of a much worse outcome, a police statement during the crisis urged media outlets to “be responsible in their reporting” because “speculation can cause unnecessary alarm.” Regrettably, not all major newspapers heeded this message. A sensationalist Daily Telegraph front cover published during the crisis read “Death Cult CBD Attack” and speculated Monis was directly linked to the Islamic State, even though no such link had been confirmed. In short, while the government and police reaction to the crisis should be applauded, some within the Australian media must learn to act more responsibly in the future.

In any event, as the dust settles from the crisis, fingers of blame begin to point in all directions. Among these fingers, the most concerning are those pointed at the Muslim community, notably from community organisations such as the Australian Defence League (ADL) which label Islam as “evil” and a threat to the Australian way of life. On its Facebook page, the ADL even suggested Dawson and Johnson’s deaths were a result of “Islamic ideology” that must be punished. These generalisations are completely deplorable. While views such as those expressed by the ADL most certainly do not represent the majority view in Australia, more must be done to counter those that paint all Muslims with the same brush as Islamic extremists. To this end, the “I’ll Ride with You” social media phenomenon that demonstrated widespread Australian support against persecution of Muslims—as well as Prime Minister Abbott’s recent remarks that Islam is not to blame for Monis’ action—have been two welcome and much needed responses.

In security terms, the Sydney Siege has also raised questions about Australian watch-lists. Monis had previously been on a watch-list and was known to Australian security organisations as a convicted criminal, yet Abbott acknowledged that Monis “dropped off” and was not on any security watch-list when he entered the Sydney café on 15 December.

While the Australian government must be held accountable for this oversight, it is also unrealistic to conclude that all suspects like Monis could be monitored and controlled 24 hours a day without infringing on basic rights of privacy and spending a significant amount of taxpayer money. There are no simple answers to these questions; whether or not the hostage situation could have been prevented if Monis was on a watch-list will perhaps always remain open to speculation.

What is clear is that any proposed new laws or policies in the crisis’s aftermath should be considered extremely carefully and thoughtfully. Broader expansions of Australian counter-terrorism laws, such as those passed by the Senate last September, are unlikely to prevent similar situations in the future. If anything, all that might be useful to reconsider is the history of a suspect and length of time a suspicious person remains on a security watch-list. Again, perspective in regards to potential legal and policy responses is important. This crisis was not a complex and multifaceted terrorist operation. It was an unstable man, walking into a café with a gun and some flags.

After such a tragedy, there are lessons to be learned from this crisis. The restraint and patience shown by Australian police and politicians was commendable and should provide a yardstick for similar operations around the world, yet some outlets in the Australian media should consider that they also have a responsibility to assist in maintaining public calm during a crisis. Moreover, maintaining a reasonable perspective on the different branches of Islam and any new counter-terrorism laws or policies is crucial. Not all Muslims are to blame for Monis’ actions or other terrorist-like activities, and any new counter-terrorism policies must be proportionate to the actual threat posed to Australians and others around the world.