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Why I stopped looking for lessons in tragedies

The Sydney siege seemed like the worst terrible thing that would occur for some time, until the next terrible thing happened.

I was standing in line at the post office when it started. It was a year ago this week, early morning. I had a large Australia Post cardboard box in both hands and a queue of people waiting behind me. The box was filled with gifts I was sending home to my boyfriend in New York while I was back in Sydney over the summer, where Christmas is not pumpkin pie and the suggestion of snow but rather prawns, crates of mangoes, and heat.

Lindt Cafe

(Getty Images)

The jacaranda blossoms in the gutters were purple and wet in the humidity. I was still enduring the cloudy symptoms of strangeness, the effects of the long flight back.

I felt my phone vibrating against my elbow in my bag and checked it while the parcel was being weighed behind the counter. It was from my mother. A missed call, and then a text message. "Stay at home. Don't come into the city." I called her back. Her voice was shaky. She told me what she knew. Martin Place. Lockdown. The Lindt Cafe, of all places. There are people pressed against the glass with their hands up, crying. There's an Islamic State flag held against the windows. Shots fired. Police. Police everywhere. Stay out of the city.

The people around me at the post office overheard the conversation. The implications rippled through the queue. Shoulders stiffened as the words set in. It was as though the air pressure had dropped. The frequency changed. I paid for the international postage and walked out into the street.

The morning was beautiful. The palms and gums and the pepper trees heaved. The air was thick with gardenias. Bougainvillea burst out of small front gardens, engirding the iron lace of balconies. I hurried toward home as though something were chasing me.

At a bus stop, an old lady waited standing in the shade for the city-bound service. She was wearing a string of smart beads, her nicest sandals. I stopped, and stuttered, trying to warn her. Just in case. She listened and put her hand to her throat and said, "Shivers." We stuttered a bit together. She said thank you. She began to hurry home. I kept walking. I turned in to the street I grew up on, and there was a police paddy wagon parked by the roundabout.

The police paddy wagon, on that morning, seemed to be some kind of augury. It seemed to have narrative significance. And I mention it because it did not.


Sydney is a big city, and Martin Place is its central artery. A comparatively small stretch of pedestrianized street, Martin Place runs uphill from the General Post Office on George Street to the state parliament and the Reserve Bank on Macquarie Street. In between lie many of Australia's legal, diplomatic, and financial institutions, as well as the Seven Network television studios, Brooks Brothers, Tiffany, and Rolex, and the kind of impersonal concrete structures that attract skateboarders on weekends. It is where the city's Christmas tree is lit every November and where Sydney's wartime dead are commemorated with flowers and hymns.

In the 1959 film On the Beach, civilization has been decimated by nuclear apocalypse, and Australia is the only safe place that remains. When you grow up in Australia, that physical distance from danger feels natural. You believe nuclear fallout won't drift as far as the city you live in, Ebola and SARS won't walk unnoticed across a border, the disease killing off bees can be halted at quarantine. Cushioned from the world by ocean on all sides, a large island in the far right-hand corner of most maps, Australia makes it easy to grow up there believing that home is a safe place. The rest of the world could collapse, you think, but you'll be all right living on the edges of it.

My mother is a barrister. Her chambers are on the ninth floor of a building just off Martin Place, on Macquarie Street. I grew up white and middle-class, urban and insulated. When I walk down Martin Place I frequently run into people dressed in long black robes and horsehair wigs. They remember me because I look like my mother, but messier.

Martin Place looms large in my personal geography. For as long as I can remember I have flitted in and out of its skyscrapers and sandstone buildings since the age when it seemed unremarkable that I could do so. It was both safe and familiar. When the siege happened in Martin Place, I experienced it in a not entirely rational way as pointed. Personal.

That morning in the post office in Sydney, I felt the first sense of things coming undone.


Rumor boiled up and spilled over the city. There was a string of attacks, the grapevine said. There were explosions. A beheading. There were bomb disposal squads rushing down George Street, blocking off Circular Quay. Contingency plans came into effect. The opera house was evacuated. The trains stopped running. The buses rerouted. Airspace was cleared. And there was what remained unsaid: People would die. The city might never be the same.

During those hours, a man armed with a flag, a sawn-off shotgun, and 23 cartridges was holding 18 people hostage inside the Lindt Cafe, one of the most recognizable buildings in Martin Place. He said he had a bomb and that there were radio-controlled explosives stationed throughout the city. He said Sydney was under attack by the Islamic State.

The footage rolled on for 24 hours, but we knew no specifics. Alone and at home 20 minutes away from the city, I could not stop watching. I tracked former versions of myself along a Martin Place now deserted and beset by police snipers. At 2 am, the shooting began. Flash grenades and shattered glass tore through the bat-squeaky silence of Sydney at night. People escaped barefoot and ran downhill. Paramedics performed CPR on the pavement. A bomb detection robot made its way into the building. And as the paramedics rushed stretchers down to the waiting ambulances a single seagull strolled across the wreckage. I stayed awake all night. I watched the sun come up all over again.


The man armed with the sawn-off shotgun in Martin Place last December was Man Haron Monis, a refugee and self-described sheikh who had fled Iran for Australia in the early '90s. He had been charged, years earlier, with harassing the families of dead Australian soldiers by sending offensive letters. People distantly recalled his face from the evening news.

For many years, Monis ran a "spiritual consultancy" business in the suburbs. He would inform women that they were unhappy because they were cursed. A cure could only be guaranteed by his ministrations of healing. As a consequence, Monis was arrested and charged with 40 separate counts of sexual assault in October 2014, eight weeks before the siege.

In addition to the sexual assault charges, Monis was under investigation for being an accessory before and after the fact to the murder of his ex-wife in April 2013. She had been stabbed 18 times and set alight in an apartment stairwell. Monis was free on bail in both cases when the attack in Martin Place occurred. Monis told people he was a sheikh, and claimed to be a member of a persecuted religious group in Iran. These are things we know. But none of them do much to explain why he walked into a cafe in Martin Place with 23 cartridges, a sawn-off shotgun, and a flag.

In the coronial inquest, it came out that in 2012 Monis had attempted to join the Rebel's Motorcycle Club, Australia's largest and most infamous outlaw motorcycle gang. He did not stay for long. The bikers had deemed him too strange. In photographs he smiles awkwardly in leather vest and silver chains. Photographs taken six months later show him in a turban and flowing robes. The man in the first photo bears little resemblance to the man in the second.

He had no friends, no group. The Muslim community saw him as an eccentric. All his life, Monis was willing to adopt the symbols and signifiers of whatever group he was trying to fit into. Then Islamic State came along, a very powerful leitmotif. And maybe he saw in the Islamic State a perverse community that would finally help him make sense of the world. Even then, he failed. He arrived at the Lindt Cafe that morning with the wrong flag.

Unable to locate an Islamic State flag in Sydney, Monis had hostages hold against the windows a black flag bearing white Arabic script. It was the Shahada flag. The Shahada is an Islamic creed testifying, "There is no god but God." It is used on the national flags of Somaliland and Saudi Arabia. During negotiations with police, one of Monis's demands was that a genuine Islamic State flag be delivered to him at the Lindt Cafe. The demand was never met.

There had been no bombs in Martin Place. No danger anywhere else in Sydney. No accomplices. While Monis had declared his allegiance to Islamic State shortly before he walked into the Lindt Cafe that morning, the Islamic State hadn't communicated with him or been apprised of his plans in any way until after he was dead. The siege killed two people, Tory Johnson and Katrina Dawson. That more people didn't die seemed largely attributable to incompetence, good fortune, or happenstance.

In 2010 Channel Seven ran a story about Monis called "Sheikh Attack." The program was about the offensive letters he was being charged with having sent. Channel Seven's studios are located opposite the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place. In the morning it's commonplace for people to gather outside the studio windows and wave at the breakfast TV hosts. After the program aired, Monis took to holding protests outside the Seven Network studios, wrapped in chains and waving placards. He also waved placards and wrapped himself in chains when he protested for a time outside the courts on the steps of the Downing Centre. I walked by him once, caterwauling from across Elizabeth Street, but I had a head full of my own problems, and it's not unusual to see people making a fuss outside the Downing Centre.


Two days after the siege I went to Martin Place to lay flowers. Hundreds of people had gathered around the wreckage wrought between Philip and Elizabeth Streets. The cafe itself was hidden behind a black tarpaulin. The broken windows were blacked out with plastic and held together by silver electrical tape. The door was hidden by a kind of red tent suspended from a sheet of white canvas. Some people stood close against the black barrier as though they might be able to walk through it and back into the week before, when the possibility of violence had seemed distant and absurd.

People stood in queues while others looked on behind the police barriers. The barriers were thick and orange and seemed to suggest that it might be possible to impose structure on the public outpouring of grief. Everybody was silent, observing the flowers and the people laying them down.

Flowers outside Lindt Cafe

Flowers outside the Lindt Cafe. (Getty Images)

The flowers filled an overwhelming stretch of space. The air was thick with smell of them. Every florist in walking distance was sold out. One by one, people approached the memorial alone. A woman in high heels leaned down and sat, quaking, close to the ground. A short Japanese man in a pink business shirt walked forward, flowerless. Instead he bowed, very solemnly. Then he walked away.

Another man stood opposite me, on the inner side of the barricade. He was tall, husky, wearing a white work shirt. He had the bearing of a wolf whistler, a sore drunk, a casual racist. He was holding his chest with his hand, and that was how you could see how heavy came his breathing. Surrounded by flowers. He wasn't the only grown man weeping.

The siege affected those around me in separate ways. Katrina Dawson, the woman killed during the shooting, had been admitted to the bar with my mother. Somebody my stepfather knew worked with the judge who had released Monis on bail. The judge, it was said, had to take stress leave. Friends of my family told stories about being shut inside nearby buildings for eight hours, told only to keep away from the windows.


Hazy shockwaves rayed out from the events of December into the following weeks. In February, a friend mentioned that her longtime boyfriend's parents were splitting up. His mother, she explained, had been completely consumed by the events of the siege. Unable to think about anything else. Numb and panicked at once, "like you." In the week after the attacks I had been jumpy and anxious. Afraid. Unusually preoccupied by what had happened.

In the days afterward, the woman's husband had sent her a picture of the floral tribute in Martin Place. He was there with his assistant, he said. They had gone there to lay flowers, without her. "And that was how she knew," explained my friend. "He knew how important it was to her, but he went to Martin Place with his assistant instead."

That week, the marriage fell apart. He had been having an affair with the assistant for nine years. Nobody was speaking. The house was empty. A month later, my friend and the boyfriend broke up as well.

People carried on. As I walked away from Martin Place the afternoon when I brought flowers, I heard snatches of conversation about engagement rings, cricket, Christmas shopping. But that week I began to see people crying in public places: buses, cafes, in line at ATMs and bathrooms. My mother told me she had cried while having her hair rinsed at the hairdresser. People shuffled together the pieces of a puzzle no one could see the edges of. Nobody could make the pieces fit into a story that made any sense.


When I was a child and terrible things happened, my father would advise me to look for the lesson in the injury. "What is the world trying to teach you?" he would ask. This was powerful stuff for a child whose experience of the world was vivid mostly in her mind, who was overly anxious about everything once belief in God left and adolescence arrived. Life tended to seem more authentic in the stories I was told or might tell myself, and allowed me to avoid the things I couldn't make sense of. I learned to look for the narrative and trust that the rendering of the story would lead me closer to meaning.

But I grew up with the internet, too, and the experience of the internet is not one of narrative so much as a series of flash cards, shards, an indefinite night experienced beneath strobe lights. The flashes of information can be arranged in any sequence, with no tangible meaning outside their provisional arrangement.

In March, I sat across a table from a man I used to be in love with, apologizing for my transgressions. The ways I had caused pain and confusion had worked on his life as a vector for chaos. "Well, a few years ago you would have freaked out and gone to smoke cigarettes in a park by now," he noted. He had cut his hair, had taken to wearing a tie. I was looking to him for absolution, and for reassurance that it would be possible to make sense of the story.

"Now you're in your mid-20s," he said. "And in your mid-20s, we have lunch." But I didn't feel more adult or self-possessed now that I was eating lunch with him instead of smoking cigarettes in a park. It did not stop me from wanting to push things to such a pitch of intensity that they might explode. Just to see what the explosion looked like.


In the days after the Sydney siege, Tony Abbott, the prime minister of Australia, addressed the country. He said there were lessons to be learned from the events of Monday. "How can someone who has had such a long and checkered history, not be on the appropriate watch lists?" he asked the nation.

"And how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community? These are questions that we need to look at carefully and calmly and methodically, to learn the right lessons, and to act upon them. ... [The] community has every right to feel upset. I'm incredibly upset. I'm outraged, and we need to ensure that everything is done to learn from this."

Tony Abbott is no longer the prime minister of Australia.


Lindt cafe window

Window of the Lindt Cafe. (Getty Images)

The siege seemed like the worst terrible thing that would occur for some time, until the next terrible thing happened. A few days after New Year's, a massacre carried out by Boko Haram around the town of Baga, Nigeria, resulted in more than 2,000 people dead. Three days later, the Kouachi brothers stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, killing 11, injuring 11, leading to a national manhunt, while Amedy Coulibaly held up a kosher grocery store across the city, killing four. Al-Shabaab stormed Kenya's Garissa University on April 2, killing 148 people. Two days later a police officer shot Walter Scott, unarmed and running away in South Carolina. A week after that, Freddie Gray was dead in Baltimore from injuries sustained in the back of a police van.

In July the Islamic State massacred more than 1,700 young Shiite cadets at an army base in Tikrit. In August a bomb at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok killed 20 and injured 125. During the Hajj, the deadliest stampede in history crushed or suffocated at least 2,257 people on a bridge in Mecca. Suicide bombs outside Ankara's main railway station killed 102 and injured more than 400 two weeks later. In November a Russian plane broke up in midair over the Sinai desert, killing all 224 people on board, and Islamic State militants wrought a massacre of 132 people in Paris on a Friday night.

The violence was coupled with extreme natural disasters. An earthquake in Nepal killed more than 9,000 people in April. Another 218 were killed in the aftershocks in May. In October, the most intense cyclone ever recorded hurtled toward the Mexican Pacific coast. At the same time, the fires burning the length of Indonesia released just shy of a gigaton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ethiopia and California are deep in drought. The Marshall Islands are flooding.

When the world tosses us a catastrophe, small or large, our response is to recuperate the event. We try to transform it into a story. Give it a structure. A structure that can keep us secure for a while, secure from the suspicion that the world might be bent in a moral arc tending toward disorder. Our stories bend the arc back into temporary shape.

Seen together, the human, political, and environmental conditions of the past year have been bound together by a sense of precariousness — the precariousness of human life and the impermanence of our homes and our habitats. Precariousness suggests the random, the unstable.

Life may have always been like this, may have been worse even in the lifetimes of my grandparents, but it has become increasingly difficult to keep holding out hope. My grandfather could recoup in his stories the senselessness of a drought, a war, a motorcycle accident that rendered him half-deaf and toothless. But I can't seem to do that. I find it difficult to look at a series of injuries and ask what the world is trying to teach me, or anybody. The conditions of impermanence and irreparable risk challenge our ability to make the world fit into any kind of narrative. Challenge our ability to ask what the world is trying to teach us.


Three days after Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz flew a Dusseldorf-bound plane into the Alps in March, I found myself on a flight over the Pacific. For the length of the flight, I was more terrified than I had ever been of a plane. When the turbulence started, the Canadian in the Akubra on my left and the retired schoolteacher on my right sat soundly in the darkness, watching their films. But I clung to the seat with my claws and watched nothing but the altitude on the screen, unable to breathe deeply until it grew light and I could make out the land below.

Lubitz was frightening to me because he viewed other people as an abstraction. His was suicide on the scale of the spectacular. To take a lot of innocent people with you is to make sure that your life, if only in its manner of ending, has had an impact. Mass murder on such a grand scale impresses upon us the absolute terror of the person who does not see any meaning or worth to the world without himself in it.

sydney attacker

Man Haron Monis. (Getty Images)

When Finnish 18-year-old Pekka-Eric Auvinen carried out murder-suicide at his high school in 2007, he first published what he called a "Natural Selector's Manifesto" on his website. "Not all human lives," he wrote, "are important or worth saving." In 2014, Elliot Rodger emailed out a manifesto before he set off around the UC Santa Barbara campus with two knives and a gun. "I wasn't the one who struck first," he wrote. "But I will finish it by striking back. I will punish everyone. And it will be beautiful."

These "manifestos" are products of the absolute belief in the individual, the winner, the lone killer. The men who wrote them held the sincere conviction that not all lives are important, and certainly not worth saving. Their actions implied there was no reason to hold out hope. Their acts of violence appeared to exemplify, absolutely, that hopelessness.

A representative from Amnesty International gave testimony at the coronial inquest into the Sydney siege held in August, due to hand down its findings in early 2016. The woman had interviewed Man Haron Monis when he complained that his human rights had been violated in 2010. He was concerned about the threats he had received from the public after having been charged for sending offensive letters. He cited a carjacking, the program aired on Channel Seven, and an attack on the tent he had erected outside the New South Wales Parliament House.

The woman described him as "a man on a soapbox playing the noble victim."


In May, I was desperately sick for two weeks before a heavily pregnant doctor on the Upper West Side informed me I had mono. The night before the illness started, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror beneath Columbia's Low Library, cupping my hands beneath the running faucet and pouring water over myself. I had left my boyfriend upstairs by a table of wine at a faculty ball. While he waited for me I stood by the mirrors and soaked my dress until the silk became a darker shade of green. Pouring water over my dress by the bathroom mirrors appeared to have no rational explanation, but I felt better as the silk cooled and dried against my skin.

The fever began the next morning. As I lay in bed unable to swallow much of anything, or think much of anything, my phone vibrated with relentless emergency warnings. There were a lot of Amber Alerts that week. I was alone in the apartment, without any painkillers, and in the height of the fever I perceived the Amber Alerts to be personal. They were a warning, or an augury, or a lesson. Something, or somebody, was coming for me, and I needed to prepare to flee, but I couldn't.


In June, Dylann Roof killed nine people during a prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina, 38 people were murdered in Tunisia when a gunman attacked a tourist resort, and I became afraid of the L train. Heading home on the subway one night I listened as a man in my carriage discussed how easy it would be to take out a lot of people in New York if you wanted to.

"Just get on the subway with a gun," he said. The L train, traveling from Manhattan to Brooklyn underneath the East River, was a perfect target. The distance between stops is longest between the East Village and Williamsburg, and once you're beneath the river there's nowhere to run. For a month, my pulse pounded in my ears in the long minutes between First Avenue and Bedford Avenue. And then I remembered how to distract myself so that I wouldn't notice my panic.

In a 2013 interview with the conservative news website WorldNetDaily, evangelist Billy Graham announced that the signs of the end of the world were "converging now for the first time."

"God keeps his promises, and this is why we can be sure that the return of Christ is near," Graham said. "Scripture tells us that there will be signs pointing toward the return of the Lord. I believe all these signs are evident today."

Graham's warning occurred in a climate of growing, and far more manic, apocalyptic prediction. In September the blood moon was meant to augur the end of the world. In October the heavens were meant to break open and terrible retribution rain down on the damned, according to eBible Fellowship.

While the apocalypse hasn't arrived this year, or the last, or the year before that, plenty of people looked around at 2015 and were convinced of its coming. Paul McGuire, a self-styled "internationally recognized prophecy expert" periodically called upon by Fox News and God.TV to talk about the impending end of the world, points to the convergence of global events including terrorism, the global recession, Hurricane Katrina, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the increasing potency of natural disasters, and increased solar flare activity. These events, he says, all affirm the "apocalyptic predictions" of the Bible.

2012 Reuters poll showed that one in seven people believes the world will end in her lifetime. That being the case, Graham argued that the only possible reprieve from eternal damnation was for "humanity to repent and turn from their sin."

It is difficult to confront the idea that the planet has no investment either way in our day-to-day existence. That it is mostly indifferent to our survival. That the world owes you nothing, certainly not a narrative, and certainly no structure for understanding its vagaries. When we try, we come up against an absolute limit in our ability to understand the world at all.


At the end of the summer I got drunk with my flatmate on a barge in Greenpoint and tried to articulate the ways in which I felt like things were coming apart. During the same week I made precise, detailed lists in notebooks, my phone, on my laptop, on scraps of paper I folded neatly and placed inside books I couldn't quite bring myself to finish reading. The notes listed deadlines, reminders to pitch and invoice, tracked items that needed to be posted, a phone bill that needed to be paid, dresses that needed to be taken in, a coat that, come winter, would need to be dry-cleaned.

The lists were a gesture. They were written by the part of myself that cherished control. This, I explained on the barge, was what I had to do to keep a handle on things. Otherwise the borders would be breached, and the messy, febrile parts of myself would spill everywhere, and the things that didn't make sense would stand there in plain sight, forcing me to face them.

In October it got cold again, and the heat began to clatter in the pipes. On the first of the month a man with a gun had walked into Umpqua Community College in Oregon with a gun and killed 10 people before turning the gun on himself. In an overheated classroom at Columbia shortly thereafter, I watched as people tried to inch open the old windows to alleviate the overheated, stuffy air inside. The windows didn't budge. "What if there was a shoot-out?" laughed the instructor. "How would we escape?"


Something began in Sydney in December that grew and spread rhizomatically into the year. The feeling that has been the subject of troubled histories for decades became more acute for me, escalated each time I paid attention to the world: the conviction that there is no common thread. The police paddy wagon portends nothing. The bumpy flight over the Pacific is unrelated to the crash in the Alps. The Amber Alerts tell me nothing about my own emergencies.

I mention this because the connections I have attempted to make here have all been thwarted. Exhortations to learn a lesson, to tell the story, to understand, feel naive. Seen together, the events of the past 12 months offer a refusal to rest at any place that looks like clarity. More to the point, the appeals to learn from them feel like a shield against all the things that make it difficult and even dangerous to force a lesson from disaster.


Three weeks after the shooting in Sydney, just as the feeling of disorder was beginning to ease, I was crossing Swanston Street in the center of Melbourne. It was dusk on a Friday night. People everywhere. Hamer Hall had been adorned with sculptural installations over the summer. There were kraken-size tentacles protruding from the walls and jutting out across the river. The westward-slanting shadows threw sea monster shapes across the city's streets.

Above the noise and the roar of traffic I heard a voice shouting out. A man on the corner of Swanston Street paced back and forth, bellowing into a megaphone. He was reading aloud from a King James Bible in his hand, one of those sections of the First Testament where God is not gentle or forgiving. Where God is jealous and mean and merciless. An unreasonable force in an impermanent world. I crossed the street, veering away from the man and his megaphone, but the words still hit me. "Be sure your sins will find you out," he roared. The voice followed me all the way down Swanston Street.

Madeleine Watts has published essays and fiction in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Believer, the Lifted Brow, and Junkee, among others. She lives in New York.


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