Laugh and think, this is Australia

Peter Hartcher in the Sydney Morning Herald has a very good article on yesterday’s reaction in Australia to the cafe siege.

When I chanced to walk through Martin Place a little after 11am on Monday, I saw the police clustered closely around the Lindt Cafe. I saw the police cordon as I stood among some hundreds of onlookers.

The police evidently had the situation in hand. The crowd was curious, but might as well have been watching a busker for all the tension in the air. Some onlookers snapped photos. Some left as others arrived. The scene was perfectly calm.

It was only when I turned on the TV an hour or so later that I realised the magnitude of our dimwittedness. We were supposed to be terrified.

The Prime Minister led in shaping our responses. He called a press conference but had no information to offer on the incident except that he had held a meeting to discuss it. He took only one question, to explain that he had no details but that the NSW police did.

“We don’t yet know the motivation of the perpetrator,” he said, then freely speculated that he was politically motivated. It was “very disturbing”.

Indeed, the police operation seemed to me (from my vantage point locked in a building five blocks away) to be exemplary – buildings evacuated, police lines erected, negotiators brought in, calm officers on the television (notably, the exceptional Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn) telling everyone to stay calm and get on with their day, a “steady as she goes, freeing the hostages is our number one priority” press conference to end the day, all with remarkable efficiency.

Even the media did a decent job, even if, by mid afternoon, they had run out of people who might have been in Martin Place if they hadn’t missed their bus to interview, and had moved on to showing news stories about who was reporting what. By 7pm, when I got home, they had all been talking for so long that speech had descended into verbal soup. I swear I heard one newsreader (I’m looking at you ABC24) speak a single sentence that managed to mention international news coverage of the incident, the plight of the hostages, hashtags trending on the internet, ISIS flags, how muslims were mostly nice people who thought terrorism was bad, and Barack Obama’s senior security advisor in no more than thirty words. It was very impressive, but terrifying, so I turned it off and watched Martin and Saga find more dead bodies instead.

By tomorrow morning, most of the media will have started removing their pants in order to inspect each other’s fundaments. Yes, sometime tomorrow some dickhead will say something stupid about jihad, or an even bigger (or perhaps just younger) dickhead will make a big man of himself by making fun of some woman threatening society by doing her shopping in a hijab, and a feeding frenzy will begin. There will be hashtags and counterhashtags and burka videos, for and against. Someone will let Jackie Lambie out of whatever box they had her stashed in today and she will say something dumb and racist. Politicians will have serious press conferences to tell us that terrorism is a terrible thing, and how the answer is another filter or letting Scott Morrison poke brown people with a pointy stick.

The idiot with a gun will get, as Mr Hartcher describes it, the overreaction that is the measure of his success.

Hopefully, God (or more likely the skills of those police negotiators) willing, somewhere amongst all that lot, the hostages will walk out to safety.

Whatever happens, the thing that stands out for me is how today was, as Mr.Trowel described it, “quiet and much like any other day” in my office and, I suspect, thousands of other offices and shops throughout Sydney.

After the flurry of texts and calls to friends and loved one had died away, everyone got on with their day. People wandered into to other people’s offices, just to check they were ok, or took breaks together to find out what was happening. Coffee runs were made. The Partners’ lunch stretched to “everyone grab a plate and one piece of bread only”. I had meetings with a couple of very clever young women, and at about 3pm, when the building reopened, most people quietly went home.

I’m not suggesting that being calm in a serious situation is some special Australian trait.

Whether it’s planes flying into buildings, or tsunamis, or bombs on trains and buses, or just a broken gas main, people, on the whole, just buckle down and get on with it, save what they can, offer what comfort they can, and go home for a drink.

Tomorrow, come good or bad news, the media and political circus begins in earnest.

If only we could just leave them to it – get on with our day, be nice to each other, comfort those who need comfort, and go home for a drink instead.

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