In the aftermath of the Sydney hostage drama, it appears the attacker was not associated with transnational Islamic terror but was probably mentally ill using the ideology only as a crutch. More details could emerge showing a deeper connection, but for now, mental illness appears at fault.
Nevertheless, two aspects of the event are worth isolating. Consider for a moment that this event was a true, full-blown terrorist attack. What made the event successful from the terrorist’s viewpoint?
Terrorism is rare, far rarer than most people think. It’s rare because in the larger world, very few people want to commit the act and even fewer are ever successful. Terrorism is difficult to achieve even for an experienced specialist, doubly so if that person or group is targeting a developed society.
But no matter how rare the act, the very existence of the tactic scares ordinary people at the instinctual level in a way that common car crashes simply can’t.
What sets terrorism apart is its message. Attacking a hard target such as a consulate or embassy sends one kind of message. But targeting a café or shopping centre sends an entirely different message. It’s all about the audience.
Terrorism is theatre. There are many more efficient ways of killing people than walking into a café with a 10-shell shotgun or blowing up a bus. But to a terrorist, the point is not the deaths of either himself or the victims, it is the semiotics of the event convincing people that nowhere is safe.
By design, terrorist attacks are intended to have a psychological impact far outweighing the physical damage the initial attack causes. Nineteenth-century anarchists promoted what they called the “propaganda of the deed”, or using violence as a symbolic action to make a larger point. Many militant groups in the twentieth-century conducted operations specifically designed as made-for-television.
And in the twenty-first century, modern terrorism leverages the proliferation of 24-hour television news and social media. Without those tools, terrorism would still exist, but its reach is now greatly magnified. In Sydney, and across the world, the hostage drama unfolded minute-by-minute spreading the feelings of terror to New Zealand living rooms.
In Mumbai in 2008, an entire city froze as gunmen wandered from soft target to soft target killing seemingly with impunity. On September 11, 2001 a small group of men hijacked a few civilian airliners and grounded an entire nation’s air traffic for days.
Everybody now thinks twice before boarding aircraft and that response is exactly what those men wanted. Terrorism exerts a strange hold over the human imagination. The actors want us to feel vulnerable to terrorism, even when most people clearly are not and never will be.
But on the other side of the Sydney barricade, another message was being broadcast.
The security forces which rolled up to the cafe did so in overwhelming fashion. The skies above were closed to civilian air traffic for the entire day, police helicopters circled instead. Cars and buses were blocked, police vehicles patrolled instead. Foot traffic was halted, heavily armed police marched instead.
What did the security forces want the public to see? In the early hours of the drama, it wasn’t clear how many gunmen were involved or whether peripheral threats existed. But as the day wore on, more information emerged and yet still hundreds of police forces remained on site.
If terrorism is theatre, then this security is also theatre. All police actions for terrorist events are always overwhelming. Since it is impossible to defend every café or government building from terrorists, it is necessary to respond forcefully when an incident occurs. Security forces must convince their civilian population that they remain in control.
Security is both a feeling and a reality. Security theatre comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders. When people feel scared they need something done to make them feel safe again, even if the action doesn’t make them truly safe. The police in Sydney, and across the world, know how to use the 24-hour media to spread their own message.
A society’s security structure knows it cannot stop all terrorist attacks, especially if the actors do not telegraph their intentions. Sending police forces dressed in combat gear to deal with a single man holding a shotgun may be exactly what the Sydney scenario required. But the message driving this was that the public should still feel safe, even if they are not.
This whole game is a house of mirrors with both sides using the tool of mass media. Terrorism is not an existential threat to our way of life and attacks are few and extremely far between. Equally, complete security is impossible and emergency services are often response-driven, not proactive.
And yet both the terrorists and security services are convincing us that their opposite messages are true. But can they really both be true? What does this say about us if they can be?