The Lindt Cafe siege took place in December 2014. Was the flag of the Islamic State flown in the window? One hostage called a radio station to criticise the response from authorities. Had bombs been planted around Sydney? There were fears that news agencies were helping the terrorists by broadcasting the location of police. Was this a terrorist event? December 2014.
The official report was released in May 2017 and, even today, there remains expert disagreement about key issues of the day. The report took two and a half years.
It certainly didn’t stop a lot of journos and internet detectives immediately starting up some spicy takes about how they would have simply dealt with the situation. They, somehow, knew exactly what Monis wanted, and they definitely knew who’s fault it was. Why was Monis out on bail? Clearly, this was more proof that everybody’s intuitions about bail were undeniably correct, and more proof that everybody’s intuitions about Islamic Australians were correct, and more proof that everybody’s intuitions about the effectiveness of ASIO were correct, and more proof of whatever people intuited immediately prior to the siege.
In a sense, the siege was unnecessary. It was an excuse. There were all these hot takes slowly going cold and they needed something to justify reheating them. It was days before people were saying we needed to change laws about bail.
There is a puzzle that is worth exploring: how do we respond to situations like this (or like Christchurch) when we’re operating in an environment of very low information?
Journos in particular have been extremely keen to pronounce a definitive account of what happened in Christchurch, including an account of who is and who is not to blame. Why? Because there’s profit involved in being first. So we get absolutely insane hot takes from journos who have analysed the ‘metadata’ of posts on some webforum to prove whatever thesis.
But Christchurch also produced something I haven’t seen before: journos definitively declaring what is not to blame. Specifically, themselves. Under no circumstances are you permitted to think that constantly running Islamophobic nonsense on the front pages of tabloids is contributing to violence. Journos have counted the pixels and checked the timestamps; somebody else must be to blame.
In the pointless mess of trying to articulate a definitive account of the Christchurch crisis, we miss two things that are significantly more valuable. The first: reflexion on our own behaviour and whether we are living up to our own standards. The second: how victims of this kind of violence feel about the situation.
I wrote earlier about our need to Other those who threaten our peaceful way of life. We don’t do evil things; people who aren’t us do evil things. We don’t do evil things; people who think what we think but ‘take it too far’ do evil things. Christchurch was an opportunity for us all to reflect on our behaviour and confront the fact that we were not creating the sort of society that we want. How do we make hate speech profitable? How are we contributing to the circus that makes it profitable to give a platform to hate speech? How do we boost the signal of terrible views instead of views that make people feel free to participate in the social, cultural, and political life of Australia? To have that discussion, we don’t need to hold any firm views about the ‘truth’ of Christchurch. We just need to be shocked by it, recognise that it is a failure caused by all of us, and commit to do better.
Responses to Christchurch rapidly deteriorated into bloviating by a bunch of old white guys about the state of the media. Was Sky News to blame? Was the ABC? Who had read and understood the manifesto best? Australian Muslims, on the other hand, felt scared. What they had been fearing for a decade was now frighteningly real. Would it happen again? Would there be copycat attacks?
But, no. Aside from a few token thinkpieces, it’s business as usual for Australia’s media. A bunch of white guys currently based in the US were more likely to be heard on the topic of Christchurch than Asian Australians, Middle-Eastern Australians, or any variety of Muslim Australian. There was no commitment to improving the diversity in our media, even when the news affected — really affected — minority Australians.
There are more important things than being ‘right’. There’s being good and there’s being decent. Our political arena is demonstrating that it is capable of neither virtue. The likely success of Mark Latham in the recent NSW election shows that we might not be capable of learning.