Leaders: Little protection from lone terrorist

Hostages hold up a flag inside the cafe in Sydney. Picture: Getty
Hostages hold up a flag inside the cafe in Sydney. Picture: Getty
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When getting an early morning coffee and bun, the last thing anyone expects is to get caught up in an Islamist terrorist incident.

Yet, that’s what about 40 people must have believed had happened to them in a Lindt chocolate shop in downtown Sydney when a man walked in with a gun and took them hostage. And it ended as though it was a terrorist attack, with commandos storming the café and shooting the hostage-taker dead. Two other people also died as a result and others were injured, though by whom is unclear.

Until the full facts of what happened, including what the hostages heard, saw and experienced, are known, it is hard to be definitive about the incident. But the initial information that has leaked out suggests the possibility that, though this may have looked like a terrorist attack, it may not have been one.

It looks more likely to have been simply a criminal incident perpetrated by a mentally unstable man with a history of criminality who dressed it up, for now unknowable reasons, to look like terrorism. It could also be a ­phenomenon which, dreadfully, has become known in America: a deliberate staging of something violent to achieve notoriety and be shot by the authorities – “suicide by cop” as it has been laconically termed. If that is the case, it was a tragedy that two others also lost their lives.

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There seems to have been plenty in the personal history of Man Haron Monis, the hostage-taker, to suggest instability and violent tendencies. He had been accused of being an accessory to the killing of his wife, and was on bail facing many accusations of indecent and sexual assault.

He had also been convicted of sending grossly offensive letters to parents and relatives of Australian victims of terrorism and troops killed in Afghanistan. His lawyer has described him as a “damaged goods individual” .

Yet whether this was deliberately planned or a crazed outburst, the authorities should not be blamed for over-reacting. The brandishing of a black flag in the chocolate shop window emblazoned with a text which is a simple statement of religious faith to most Muslims, but has also been adopted as a slogan by Islamist terrorist groups, proves nothing.

In such situations, though, the authorities have to assume the worst. Who can know if this man’s derangement tipped him over the edge, or if he had made a lonely calculation that he should be a terrorist? Do unstable ­extremists simply now adopt the flag of terrorists as a flag of convenience? Had he killed all the hostages, the authorities would have been accused of sitting on their hands.

Little can protect the public against such a lone wolf act. Restricting access to weapons and perhaps better care for the mentally ill with violent tendencies would help. Such curbs need to be discussed, but the reality is that perfect public safety cannot be guaranteed.

Shopping is the new carol singing

’Tis the season to be ­shopping, for Christmas traditions they are all a-dropping. Deck the halls with satellite dishes, the telly will fulfil your festive wishes.

This seems to be how Christmas is viewed in modern Britain. The trend towards it being a secular, self-indulgent holiday rather than a time for spiritual reflection and to give a helping hand to those less fortunate has been under way for a long time, probably since Queen Victoria popularised the Christmas tree and certainly since Santa got suited in the Coca-Cola Corporation colours.

If there has been one constant throughout, it has been the Salvation Army, whose members have been evangelising and ministering to the poor since the 1860s and whose December street carol-­singing has been a fixture since then too.

But their transient audiences do not share this constancy, the Salvationists have discovered in a survey. Indeed, three-quarters of the 2,000 people contacted said they wouldn’t even consider singing a carol themselves this Christmas. Much the same number were unlikely to visit a market or help out a charity. Even sending cards to family and friends was found to be on the decline.

The reason? Apparently, everybody is too busy shopping, then wrapping gifts, to have much time for anything else. As for playing charades, forget it, there is too much eating and drinking to be done and then, of course, there has to be slumbering in front of movies on the telly.

A shame? Yes, it is, but times change and so do social habits. At least the Salvationists can be ­assured of plenty of shoppers when they go carol-singing and collecting donations in the malls and the high street.

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