I had a thought on Monday morning, as I was riding up the elevator to the office on the 19th floor, take away coffee in hand, ear buds in my ears, key card snapped to my jacket pocket, that it felt like one of those mornings you hear about just before a tragedy. A Monday morning so dull, so banal, and so routine that it was just aching to be shattered. Then I thought, yes, if this were a disaster movie, my elevator would stop suddenly and plunge to its and my death because a bomb had gone off in the building. Actually, I have that “elevator plunging to its and my death” thought almost every time I ride in that steel box. I’m afraid of heights and elevators, so working on the 19th floor is mildly traumatising. But yesterday, thinking about it felt a little darker. I made note of it as I stepped off the elevator, saying a quick thank you in my mind.
I forgot about that feeling as I got to work. Around 10:30 or so, my supervisor said, “Oh, there’s a guy in the CBD with a gun…” My immediate reaction, I’ll admit, was only mildly concerned. It’s the American in me who’s desensitised to gun violence, not even picking up on the fact that Australians don’t have guns. I was texting Joel, who works about 5 minutes away from the CBD (Central Business District), to let him know, when another coworker added, “And he’s waving an ISIS flag.” What? “Oh, he has hostages. He’s taken over a cafe and there’s an ISIS flag in the window!” warning signs went off everywhere in my head.
I flew to the news. When I saw the photo of the hostages with their hands pressed against the glass, underneath a flag with what appeared to be Middle Eastern writing, with headlines saying “SIEGE” “ISIS” “SUSPECTED TERRORIST”, my heart started racing. Mark me a reactionary American who grew up in the post 9/11atmosphere of paranoia and media spread fear, but at that moment, I was. I got scared. As objective as I try to be, I couldn’t stop thinking “oh fuck, what’s going to happen this time?” I glued myself to my phone, refreshing live feeds and fanning my internal hysteria.
I work in North Sydney, which is across the harbour from the CBD. I wasn’t near it, but I wasn’t that far. Joel was only minutes away from the scene. I was worried about how he’d get home, or if he’d end up on lock down like the rest of the city, or what if the gunman went on a rampage down Pitt St, or WHAT IF A BOMB HAPPENS?! THAT TWEET SAID HE HAD MULTIPLE DEVICES AROUND THE CITY!!
I was losing it inside. But my coworkers were remarkably calm. They’d get up to watch the helicopters that were circling low around the CBD, hands in their pockets, making “hmm, look at that!” murmurs. It wasn’t what I was expecting. I was texting Joel seemingly every 30 seconds, trying to formulate a plan for when the bridges were blown and we had to make it home. He assured me that I could probably just take a different bus route.
I had a doctors appointment after work, and I was sure it would be canceled. And I was surprised when appointments were still on, even though bus lines were being re-routed and terminated and traffic leaving North Sydney was being diverted.
So I left work early, planning to catch a ferry, assuming the cabs would be booked with frightened people trying to get home. Nope. There were a dozen cabs outside my building, like always. I flagged one down, hopped in, and the driver asked me if I wanted to cut through the city to get to Balmain quicker.
“Isn’t traffic through the city being re-routed?”
“For buses, yeah.”
“But I read that the bridge was closed to traffic because of the police lock downs.”
“But it’s quicker. We’ll go by bridge.”
The driver, who must have thought I was Canadian (no surprise there), spent the entire drive home blaming all the day’s mess on the United States. It was uncomfortable. I didn’t tip him.
When Joel got home, I’d never been happier to see him. But he had a little “what’s the big deal?” attitude. As he said, “our police are taking care of it. That’s their job, and they’re doing it. Everything is going to be ok.”
At the doctor’s office, no one mentioned it. When I said to my doctor, “crazy day, huh?” she gave me a confused look and said something about the weather being nice.
Walking down to the store after, no one was talking about it in the streets. Even with the radio DJ reporting the gun man’s demands of an ISIL flag and a meeting with Tony Abbott, everyone just went about their business. I only heard one woman talking about it, and she was chatting to someone on the phone, mostly laughing about how the gun man was “a complete nutter.”
I was beginning to feel alarmed that I had no one to share my panic with–besides my American friends who were checking in with me on Facebook, and my mom, who messaged me that she was looking up return flights to America for me (yes, I gently reminded her that America has had more terrorist attacks and more extreme gun violence than Sydney, and I was probably safer here).
Toward the end of the evening, the siege was still happening, and only a handful of hostages had been released. Our TV is broken, so we were hooked to our phones to give us news. And all the news did was give updates. Just updates. Nothing sensational. No terrorism segments. Real Tweets that debunked the audacious rumours I had read earlier. No “How to Spot an ISIS cell in Your Neighbourhood” specials. I felt like I should be panicking, but I was given nothing to panic about. After all, the second biggest story to the gun man was the “#illridewithyou” movement that was totally heartwarming. Joel explained to me that this is how Australians are. They don’t get riled up until there’s something to get riled about. I felt conflicted.
The conflict was bred out of knowing I should be frightened, and realising that I feel I should be frightened because, as with most people like me who grew up in military family, I relive the feelings from 9/11 whenever there’s a suspected terrorism attack. I wasn’t in NYC, but I lived 5 minutes away from a target (the NSA), and so many of my Dad’s friends and colleagues worked in the Pentagon. I relive the fear, the not knowing what will happen next, the wondering if everyone you knew made it out ok, and then, the proceeding years of growing up in a culture that simultaneously told you to fear/suspect and love/not judge Muslims. There I sat, looking at images of a flag and hostages and a gun man and I was shaking, trying not to be scared, trying not to leap to conclusions, while everyone around me seemed so sure that everything would be ok. But I know how not okay everything can be. I started to feel embarrassed, even though I knew, and Joel assured me, that I had nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s the most unsettling culture shock I’ve ever experienced.
In the end, there were no bombs, no terrorist group, no plot to take over the city. However, the gun man and two hostages were dead before the raid concluded just after 2 AM. And the next day at work, no one had anything to say about it. Everyone in the streets went hustling about their business. Memorials are planned for the fallen hostages, and insensitive people are being slammed for taking selfies at the scene. And that’s it. No extra security that I can see. People still crowd cafés. It’s just another day in Sydney.
Today, I nervously rode the elevator to the 19th floor. This time, feeling thankful for how ordinary and bland my morning felt.