Sydney siege: Man Haron Monis' history of violence against women was a warning sign no one took seriously

by Clementine Ford - 17/12/14, 12:00 AM
Members of the Muslim community lay flowers at Martin place after two people and the gunman died when the siege ended.

Members of the Muslim community lay flowers at Martin place after two people and the gunman died when the siege ended.

Earlier this week, the nation watched in horror as a hostage situation unfolded in one of Australia's busiest metropolitan areas. Shortly before 10am on Monday morning, a man armed with at least one gun entered the Lindt building on Sydney's Martin Place, taking what was reported as up to 30 people hostage for well over 12 hours. Two innocents have been killed, with countless others enduring psychological and physical torment. Shot dead by police, the shooter takes with him any answers that might have shed light on why he chose such a violent and deadly course of action.

But this lack of insight hasn't stopped people speculating. Very shortly after the siege began, false reports began circulating that an Islamic State flag was being held up in the cafe's window. This was soon replaced by vaguer claims that it was an 'Islamic flag', later established as a Shahada flag representing a general faith in Islam. Instantly, the incident was being cast as an act of terrorism. The virulent strain of racism that resides so comfortably in swathes of Australian communities reared its ugly head, and it didn't take long before 'news' organisations like the Daily Telegraph began to capitalise on it. In response, a hashtag was born, with people for better or worse declaring #illridewithyou to Muslim Australians fearful of facing backlash on public transport.

But the persistent reference to religious extremism continues. Even the Prime Minister has referred to the siege as a 'brush with terrorism', despite the fact that there is no evidence to link the shooter to organised terrorist groups and he also appears to have been working alone.

Gunman Man Haron Monis sent hate mail to Australian war widows.
Gunman Man Haron Monis sent hate mail to Australian war widows. Photo: Kate Geraghty

In fact, although focus has seemed to rest on the fact he styled himself as a Muslim cleric, what we know of the shooter's history with violence has very little to do with religion. It does, however, paint an incredibly disturbing picture of someone with a deep and aggressive hatred for women - the kind of deep and aggressive hatred that evidently transcends religious beliefs, seeing as it's also shared and expressed by significant numbers of non-Muslim men. More to the point, his ability to walk into a coffee shop with a gun and murderous intent says far less about the supposed resistance of Arab Muslims (because let's be honest, this is about skin colour as much as anything) to assimilate than it does our country's lax approach to probation and bail laws - particularly when the crimes in question can be viewed as 'domestic' incidents or private sexual matters.  

At the time of the siege, the shooter was on bail for 2013 charges relating to the murder of his ex-wife, alongside his then partner Amirah Droudis. The magistrate adjudicating their trial granted the pair bail after admitting that the prosecution had "a weak case." That may well be true, and practitioners of the law are required to operate within it, sometimes against all reason. But earlier this year, the shooter again came to the attention of law enforcement officers when he was charged with more than 40 sexual assault offences alleged to have occurred during the period of 2000 - 2012.

Why were these new charges not considered sufficient evidence that this man posed at the very least a threat to women, with the end result being the revocation of his bail? And why, in subsequent reporting fixating on his history, have these charges and very serious incidents been treated almost as a postscript to the apparently more damning (and yes, still horrible) crime of letter writing? Instead of asking how a man with a history of violence against women is allowed to roam freely on the streets, why is the Prime Minister being asked about his absence from terror watch lists?

The Martin Place memorial.
The Martin Place memorial.

Almost without fail, non-Muslim white men who behave as he did are given the benefit of individual autonomy. When Rodney Clavell staged a 13 hour siege at an Adelaide brothel in June of this year, his reported Christianity barely made any of the news reports. Where it did, it was in articles which spent a good proportion of time talking about how much of a good bloke he was. Norway's Andres Breivik - a right wing Christian who murdered 77 people in 2011 - was frequently described as 'a lone wolf'. His actions were certainly not treated as a defining characteristic of members of the Christian faith, nor did Christians have to fear backlash once his affiliation was revealed.

The young boys and men who go on shooting rampages in American schools are also invariably described as 'troubled', their past records as 'good students' held aloft to amplify the tragedy rather than attempt to understand it. When Elliot Rodger embarked on a shooting spree in the Santa Barbara town of Isla Vista in May of 2014, he was troublingly portrayed as a lonely young man tired of being spurned by one too many women. Attempts to discuss how pervasive misogyny breeds entitlement and violence in certain members of the male population were aggressively shut down, with critics screeching 'not all men!' repeatedly - as if wanting to discuss how male violence harms women is tantamount to wanting to round up all men and put them in prison isolation.

I wonder how many of those stalwart defenders are now eagerly braying for the blood of innocent Australian Muslims?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his wife Margie pay their respects to the victims of the Martin Place siege.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his wife Margie pay their respects to the victims of the Martin Place siege.Photo: Steve Christo

This fixation on skin colour as a defining element of terrorism has to end, particularly when our society seems content to dismiss other incidents of mass violence as the individual work of deranged or socially inept men. But even more than that, we have to stop differentiating violence as matters of private or public interest. In a working justice system, this man would not have been able to take over a Lindt coffee shop in Sydney, terrorising almost 30 people and killing two of them. The female victims of the combined charges of accessory to murder and upwards of 40 sexual assaults should have been valued enough to curtail this man's freedom. Why weren't they?

Why, when it comes to violent men, don't the lives of women ever seem to be important enough?

My deepest sympathies and thoughts are with the victims and survivors of Monday's siege, and the families that now have to say goodbye to loved ones. I cannot begin to understand the slow path to healing that they must now embark upon. This should never have been allowed to happen.

But the reasons for that have nothing to do with defending 'our way of life'. Because seen in light of the total disregard for women exercised by both this shooter and the judicial system that allowed him his freedom, perhaps it's our way of life that's precisely the problem.

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