In Australia’s pain, lessons for all

When I first lived in Delhi in the year 2000, I was struck by how present was the awareness of terrorism as a risk in daily life, in India as in other parts of South Asia. But this was not the same as fear, for I was also impressed by the philosophical and practical resilience of Indian people — the widely-held sense that terrorists should not be allowed to succeed in intimidating their country or destroying India’s diverse social fabric.

Back then, these seemed distant concerns for Australians. In the years since, that has changed — Australians have fallen victim to terrorist violence in New York and Mumbai, London, and of course on the Indonesian island of Bali, where the 2002 bombings killed 88 of my compatriots.

This week, a deranged lone criminal has brought the terrorist tactic of hostage-taking to the great Australian city of Sydney. Now he is dead, along with two courageous innocents who may well have died trying to shield others.

This does not, however, mean that Australia itself has suddenly or fundamentally changed. Whether this shock changes Australia for the worse will depend on the way Australians choose to think and act in the days ahead.

The greater truth is that Australians are responding to this crime in their midst with a strength and a largeness of spirit made possible by the peculiar qualities of this country — a multicultural democracy allergic to bombast, intimidation and hate.

Past incidents

Terrorist intent on Australian soil is not new. In 1978, three people were killed by a bomb believed to be planted by the Ananda Marga sect with the intention of assassinating Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai on a visit to Sydney.

Last decade, Australian security and intelligence agencies thwarted elaborate plotting from self-styled jihadists before an atrocity could be committed. This year we have heard repeated warnings of the deadly risk of ‘lone wolf’ attacks in support of the hateful ideology of the so-called Islamic State.

So it was probably a matter of time before Australia’s luck ran out, despite heightened awareness and efforts by the security services.

At the same time, the mass horror and inhumanity of the school killings in Pakistan must put our own national security challenges into perspective. None of this can be consolation for the families of the victims in the Sydney café siege.

But it is hard to think of more vivid proof of the futility and failure of terrorism than the resilience and rallying together of Australians from many backgrounds that we have seen over the past few days.

One of the grim lessons of Mumbai was how all forms of media can inadvertently become a perilous instrument. In Sydney, the authorities managed to restrict the spread.

Sydney is a city renowned the world over for its sheer love of life. Its grand pedestrian thoroughfare of Martin Place, the scene of the café siege, has been transformed into a vast living memorial, a bright sea of flowers in this harbour city. Thousands of Australians — of all faiths, and of none — have spontaneously assembled here to pay tribute not only to the victims but also to the spirit of tolerance that makes this country what it is.

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

It should also 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, with about 3,00,000 people offering via Twitter to escort Muslim Australians on public transport to ensure they were not harassed.

Australians will take from this harrowing experience other lessons too.

The response by the security forces appears to have been professional and coordinated. It appears that their forceful intervention in the early hours of December 15 occurred after the gunman had started shooting and any delayed response would have cost more lives. Crisis-response capabilities and mechanisms long in preparation swung into action.

Even so, the authorities are determined to learn lessons for future contingencies: the Prime Minister has called for a wide-ranging review of how the perpetrator had been at liberty at all, how he had been accepted as a refugee from Iran, and had somehow lawfully gained possession of a gun.

After all, he was a disturbed and dangerous individual, previously on a terrorism watch list, who claimed to be inspired by jihadist ideology. He was also a pathetic reject from Australia’s own Muslim communities. He had a criminal record and was on bail for charges related to the vicious murder of his wife.

Managing the message

One lesson Australia has quickly learned about terrorism is the vital importance of managing the message. While our competitive media could not help but report the crisis around-the-clock, and this provided the attacker with a kind of attention, they ended up showing a commendable degree of solidarity and restraint in some areas. It is still disturbing that a single terrorising madman could dominate global headlines, but this was not quite the oxygen of publicity.

His message was suffocated from the outset because, most importantly, his demands were not widely broadcast at the time. This will help discourage future such incidents.

In some other ways, too, the Australian media did the socially responsible thing — such as by generally responding to police requests not to breach operational security by broadcasting details of deployments, weapons and tactics. One news cameraman with an exceptional vantage point provided a constant stream of telescopic footage to the police, while his TV channel agreed to withhold it from public broadcast.

Social media users, too, tended to show greater understanding and responsibility as time went on. One of the grim lessons of Mumbai was how all forms of media can inadvertently become a perilous instrument. In Sydney, the authorities mostly managed to restrict the spread via social media, of videos of coerced hostages relating their captor’s demands. And wider panic was prevented, despite rumours — which turned out to be false — that several bombs had been planted around the city.

Working together

In the end, Australians are still wondering whether to call this event terrorism or something else. Not so long ago, terrorists craved the mantle of freedom fighter or soldiers. Yet now there seems a risk that calling a deed of barbarity by the name of terrorism will bestow it with meaning and political purpose. Terrorism itself is defined as a whole set of crimes, but whether the Sydney attack was more criminal than terrorist is perhaps beside the point.

What is certain is that it was an act neither of faith nor of war, and the way Australia has united in response has successfully prevented its being dignified as such.

It may be a sorrowful thing to say, but terrorism has a way of reminding Australians and Indians of the increasingly convergent interests of their two countries. Two of the survivors of the Sydney siege were Indian. Three Australians died in Mumbai in 2008. Australian security agencies worked quietly behind the scenes with their counterparts in India, the United States and the United Kingdom to help ensure that the 2010 Commonwealth Games passed without a terror attack.

More and more people of Indian origin are finding themselves at home in Australia, as attested to by the enormous welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently received in the country. Indeed, Indians are Australia’s fastest-growing migrant community, more than 4,50,000 in number, and a valued addition to the texture and dynamism of the country’s society and economy.

It is inevitable that our two societies will become increasingly aware of the security and political challenges faced by each other, and often held in common. Formal agreements on security cooperation could be bolstered by the sharing of information and lessons learned, whether in counter-terrorism tactics, crisis management, de-radicalisation programmes or effective security coordination between state and central authorities in our two federal systems.

There is every reason for our two countries to redouble efforts to work together against terrorism and other crimes that seek to exploit and destroy our inclusive and open societies.

(Rory Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney, and the incoming head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.)

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