Twenty-eight days ago, just after two in the morning, customer Katrina Dawson and manager Tori Johnson were killed when the hostage stand-off in the Lindt Cafe at Martin Place was broken as police stormed the building. The hostage-taker, Man Haron Monis, was killed in that encounter. Now we know that Dawson, previously assumed to have been executed by Monis, was hit and possibly killed by police bullets as more than 25 officers stormed in. Police had initially claimed that she had died of a heart attack in an ambulance on the way to hospital.
Tori Johnson’s death is unclear too. Police claimed that the shooting of him by Monis had triggered their assault. It has been reported, however, that Johnson was shot after the police assault began, and that Monis’ first shot was a warning shot.
We’re learning some other disturbing facts about the siege and its end too — that the police were unwilling to let Muslim community leaders speak to Monis, that they had no clear strategy over whether to give Monis an Islamic State flag or not (for which he had said he would release a hostage) and that police had no ongoing contact with Monis for hours at a time during the siege.
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It is the last of these that is most disturbing. The core imperative of any hostage negotiation is to maintain a connection with the hostage-taker, and establish a relationship with him (or, much less commonly, her). This is especially so when hostages have been taken not by professional criminals, but by those who believe that they have been “driven” to such an act, and have no other choice.
Monis certainly believed that. The would-be IS representative made all the right noises about jihad, but he was exercised about a lack of recognition by a quintessentially Australian institution — the High Court, which had rejected his appeal over a conviction relating to a series of poison-pen letters he had sent to the families of Australian servicemen.
Such men are desperate for recognition and a hearing, and Monis was certainly desperate. A domestic abuser, and possibly a wife-killer, he had veered from ostentatious anti-Australian jihadism to (literally) waving the Aussie flag and claiming that his poison-pen letters had been in the spirit of “helpful advice”.
Though he was clearly not insane in a legal sense, Monis was obviously disturbed and narcissistic, the type for whom a substantial negotiation exists. Put simply, if a hostage negotiator can establish a personal relationship with such a figure, convince them that they genuinely understand their troubles, and recognise their legitimacy, the hostage-taker has a good chance of being calmed down, releasing hostages for less than they had asked for, or for nothing at all, and often having their resolve completely broken. Having steeled themselves to violent action by developing a sense of isolation and superhuman bearing, an apparently real connection with a human being can deflate that resolve rapidly.
The revelation that there was no ongoing contact raises a crucial question. Was Monis treated as a disturbed hostage-taker first and foremost — disgruntled employee, angry divorced father — or did his self-proclaimed status as an IS representative alter the way in which the situation was handled? Was a crude rule of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” — which, in such circumstances, we do — allowed to dictate operational procedure?
“What was the sequence of events in the lethal shooting of Johnson, the storming of the cafe, and the killing of Dawson?”
Were any professional hostage negotiators even summoned? How many of these do Australian police forces have, and how good is their training? Are there clear protocols for hostage situations in place and do they categorise purportedly political events differently to “civil” situations? Do they differentiate between rational, purposeful violent political acts, and disorganised and confused political or pseudo-political acts and actors?
Why were the offers from Muslim community leaders to speak to Monis rejected, when it is a common practice to use in that way figures whom a hostage-taker might respect? Did police distrust the bona fides of Australian Muslims, believing their loyalties would be to Muslims, including Monis, rather than to the wider community?
The timing of the final minutes of the event needs to be explored in the most meticulous detail as well. What was the sequence of events in the lethal shooting of Johnson, the storming of the cafe, and the killing of Dawson? Was there police confusion over a storming of the cafe? Did Monis shoot Johnson as a response to that, rather than as a response to the last hostage escape, as we have been told?
Most importantly, was there any higher political interference, formal or informal, with police operations? Were police ordered or requested to treat the hostage situation as a wholly political event, and suspend normal negotiating techniques with Monis?
Are police allowing the simplistic right-wing view of Monis — that he was a rational, jihadist political operative — to influence their planning in the case of future such events? Will all events in which the hostage-taker claims a political motive be treated as de facto military situations with a reduced regard for the safety of the hostages?
What is the relationship between the Murdoch press and the higher command of police forces in Australia? Is it as active and corrupted as the relationship between the UK Metropolitan Police and News Corp UK has been shown to be — a relationship that has compromised murder investigations and forestalled investigations of wholesale criminality into the Murdoch empire itself? Do right-wing columnists in the Murdoch Press have an influence on the police, and are they using it, via persuasion or threats, to steer police procedure with regard to crimes with a claimed political content?
We need answers to these questions, firstly for the sake of Dawson and Johnson, and their families. Political opportunists tried to enrol Johnson as a “hero” who had tried to grab Monis’ gun, and died for it. He may simply have been executed — and that may have occurred because of compromised or incompetent police procedure. That Dawson died laying her body over that of a pregnant fellow hostage appears established. That she died from a police bullet does not alter that. But if it resulted from needlessly compromised procedure, then the police are partly culpable for a needless death. To turn anyone killed into a “hero” is a denial of the possibility of victimhood, of innocence, and thus of unconditional worth of any human being. To do so on the basis of clearly false information is an act of disdain. To use it as a means by which future such crises will be shaped and distorted, is actively evil. The unscrupulous love to wrap themselves in a flag whatever the event. They’re happy to use it as a shroud for any number of us, if that’s what it takes.