I have spent most of today at a loss for words about the hostage situation, described as 'consistent with a terrorist attack', taking place just a few blocks from my Sydney office. Sometimes the smaller the amount of instant and semi-informed coverage an incident generates, the better. This is one of those times.
Frankly, there is not a lot that is meaningful to say about what is occurring. Even if the situation is resolved peacefully, what has happened is plainly a cruel and criminal act: keeping innocent people detained at gunpoint and in fear for their lives. And at the time of writing, it is not over.
The rest of the story has been largely guesswork. The hostage-taker has used — or, to put it more accurately, abused — an Islamic flag. Understandably, there has been plenty of speculation that his agenda is broadly supportive of Islamic State or other violent extremists. But at time of writing, there has been no public expression of a specific affiliation or a demand being made to negotiators. Australian authorities have been cautious about using the 'terrorist' label, even if some media have been quick to do so.
None of this is to say that the authorities are over-reacting. Most of what we have seen shows calm, coordination and professionalism. Crisis-response mechanisms and capabilities, long in the making, have swung into action. It is commendable that authority figures, from the Prime Minister down, have emphasised the need for calm and normality. Tony Abbott has called the perpetrator nothing more glorious than 'an armed person claiming political motivation'. That is the right approach.
And nor, from what I have seen today, has the Australian public lost its nerve. In peak Christmas shopping season, much of Sydney's central business district continued to function with relative normality for at least the first few hours after the incident began, and then began to wind down gradually, not in panic. Not far from the siege zone, faces were perhaps a little anxious at my favourite café, but it was still busy, still a determined attempt at business as usual.
It is also impressive 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.
So it is wrong to claim that this was the day Australia changed forever. Innocent people's lives are being threatened. People are being traumatised. But by all accounts, this seems the work of a lone criminal.
That fact should not of itself be cause for comfort. It is deeply disturbing that the work of one dangerous person has drawn such blanket attention in the national and global media. If terrorism thrives on the oxygen of publicity, then the Australian and international media has generally played to the script. Several journalists I have spoken with today are privately aware of this problem.
Still, it is hard to see who benefits from saturation media coverage of an event like this other than the criminal himself and those violent extremists whose agenda has been associated with his actions. The more attention a one-man outrage like this generates, the greater may be the incentive for someone else to try something similar.
Let's not pretend that the rest of us are not complicit. Social media has helped magnify and at times distort the picture. Early on, for instance, I saw one irresponsible tweet claiming the attacker had planted devices all over the city. Meanwhile, those random members of the public who had nothing better to do but stand at police cordons waiting and watching can only have complicated things needlessly for the security forces.
Some social media users – and mainstream media – were transmitting real-time images of police positions or otherwise reporting on police movements. The Mumbai siege in 2008 proved the impact of social media in terrorist situations: there, the attackers and their handlers were reportedly using all forms of media to keep track of the Indian security forces, which may well have added to the duration and lethality of those attacks. It is a lesson that must not be forgotten. Perhaps today in Sydney the hostage-taker did not have media-monitoring accomplices, but none of us can know for sure.
I have not responded to most calls from the media today because at this stage I have little useful to say. And now I've said it.