Monday morning started just like any other. I woke up, had some coffee, and cooked breakfast for my children. I had a headache — the remnant of the World’s Worst Hangover that I’d suffered through the day before — but I was awake and alert and happy. I sent a few emails to friends, and lurked around social media for a while.
And then, suddenly, my timeline was full of pain.
A gunman had taken up to 20 people hostage in a Sydney cafe. The news broke with the picture that was everywhere. The picture of two hostages holding a black flag with arabic script against the window of the cafe — a cafe that was, conveniently, directly across the street from the Channel 7 news room.
As I read the news, and stayed abreast of what was going on, my heart was in my mouth. I sat in front of my computer, tears streaming down my face, fear coursing through my veins. And so I did what many others were doing. I took to social media to share my thoughts and my hurt.
I’m terrified. I’m terrified for the hostages in the Martin Place siege, and for their friends and family. I’m terrified for the police responding to the siege. And, most of all, I’m terrified about the impact this attack will have on every Australian, particularly Muslim Australians, regardless of how it turns out. May this situation be resolved without loss of life, and may all Australians remember that hatred is not a cure for pain and anger, but a fan to its fire.
The day stretched on, and nothing changed. No, that’s not true. Nothing changed at the Lindt Cafe, Martin Place. But the media had a field day. The flag was identified as an ISIS flag. Then it wasn’t. Then it was an extremist terrorist flag. Then it wasn’t. The speculation about Evil Islamic Terrorists hit fever-pitch in media channels. Radio hosts claimed to be talking to people inside the siege. Police maintained that they hadn’t yet made contact with the hostage-taker. And Murdoch’s ridiculous newspaper (and I use the word “news’ in the loosest possible sense), The Daily Telegraph, released a special 2pm edition with the headline: “DEATH CULT CBD ATTACK”. All of it was conjecture. None of it was helpful. And, in my anger and frustration, I took to social media again.
Just to clarify, the fact that a crackpot plastered a flag (not, as has been reported, the Islamic State flag) on a window after taking people hostage does not actually mean that #sydneysiege is part of a religious or political war. There’s no current proof that the crackpot responsible is even Muslim. The police are still saying they don’t know who he is. But I can assure you, the moment you put an Islamic flag on a window, you guarantee yourself widespread media coverage. Regardless of the religious beliefs of the crackpot in question, he is holding people hostage. And that’s the important part.
May the siege end without bloodshed, and people remember to hold true to their values and not allow false information, assumptions, and ignorance to push them towards hatred.
Randa Abdel-Fattah wrote a great article about exactly this media frenzy here. Go and read it. (But stay away from the comments if you value your sanity.)
By mid-afternoon Monday, I was a mess. I’d been crying for hours, imagining the trauma the hostages were facing inside that cafe. Imagining the life that led the hostage-taker to the precipice he was standing on, when the idea of taking people hostage at gunpoint, knowing that he would likely end up dead and reviled at the end of it, seemed like a good idea. Thinking about the society we live in, and the world at large, and the pain that would follow this attack.
I was watching when the first three hostages escaped. I felt the same relief as the rest of the nation. But I also felt afraid. Afraid of how their escape would affect the microcosm of the cafe. Afraid of what the gunman would do now.
But, three hours later, nothing had changed. Nothing except the conversation.
The police knew the identity of the man responsible (who I refuse to name here), and posited that he was acting alone, and not a member of any extremist group. The flag had been categorically affirmed as a general statement of Islamic faith, and not an evil portent of doom. And the chat on social media was largely full of grief, pain, and support for Muslim Australians. I added my voice to the throng.
Let me take another opportunity to remind everyone that regardless of this “lone wolf” crackpot’s race, religion, or beliefs, he is not a representative of everyone of that race, religion, and belief system. He is not a representative of every man, or of every Australian, or of every member of his nationality or religion (as yet unconfirmed). Don’t let anger at his actions influence your feelings about any person other than him. Don’t let fear overcome your reason. We are stronger than that. We are Australian.
And then, the most remarkable thing happened.
Social media exploded with the hashtag #illridewithyou.
On seeing a Muslin woman on a train sadly remove her hijab for fear of hate-fuelled “retribution”, an ordinary Australian woman started this hashtag. The message, clear and simple. Do not be afraid to be who you are. Do not be afraid of backlash. And if you are afraid, I will ride with you.
The message was tweeted and posted and shared something like 120,000 times in the first two hours. And it’s been gathering momentum ever since.
The siege wore on. I tried to sleep, but my brain and my imagination were having none of it. I tossed and turned and tried to read and couldn’t concentrate and finally got back on the computer. Five minutes later, it was all over.
More hostages escaped from the cafe. There was a burst of gunfire. Police stormed the building. Another burst of gunfire. And then it was done.
The #sydneyseige is over with three dead, including the crazed crackpot who started all this. My heart is heavy with the knowledge that the families of these people — yes, even the gunman — will be grieving today and for many tomorrows. I feel, also, for the hostages who escaped; their lives will never be the same. May they find peace and healing. Thanks to the #nswpoliceand all emergency crews who brought this event to a close. Let’s remember to band together in this difficult time, to refuse to let the seeds of hatred grow in our hearts, and to continue to build such beautiful community initiatives as#illridewithyou.
Katrina Dawson was a lawyer and a mother of three. She died heroically, protecting the life of her pregnant friend.
Tori Johnson was the manager of the Lindt Cafe. He died heroically, struggling with the gunman in an attempt to disarm him while the other hostages fled.
They were real people, real people killed senselessly, real people who died bravely in the face of the kind of terror we just don’t see in Australia. They are True Blue Aussie heroes, and will forever be remembered as such. In the days that have passed since their tragic deaths, tributes have flowed in to Martin Place in their honour. They live on in the hearts of all of us. Vale, Katrina and Tori.
In the days since the siege ended, I’ve struggled to rediscover my equilibrium. Struggled to come back to terms with the world, and to stop feeling the slow bleed of my heart. It’s not easy. It’s been a tough week. And a tougher one on the people involved. But there’s one thing that’s helped me through this time.
The solidarity shown by Australians across the country. We, as Australians of all races, religions, colours, and creeds, have come together in person and on social media to support each other, and to show solidarity with our fallen heroes. I’ve read great posts like this one, and watched #illridewithyou get global recognition. I’ve seen Australians at their best.
I’ve found my feet again.
And I’ve been proud. We may not have it all under control — just today, an MP derided the #illridewithyou campaign as left-wing nonsense all about “hating whitey” — but we’re on the right track. We’re on the right track.
Today, I am in mourning for the lost lives of Katrina and Tori. But I’m proud, so very proud, to be Australian.
We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on Earth we come
We share a dream, and sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian.