The horrors that surround hostage dramas are confusing enough on their own. Throw in complex questions about religious faith and terrorism and journalists and this kind of story pushes journalists -- in real time, under unbelievable amounts of pressure -- to their intellectual and personal limits.
Looking back on the Sydney crisis (following the early post by Bobby Ross., Jr.) I am struck by one interesting question that journalists faced and, for the most part, ducked: What was the motive? Why did gunman Man Haron Monis -- the most frequently used of his many names -- do what he did? Lacking the ability to read his mind, what concrete clues were offered during this act of symbolic violence?
A news report from The Daily Beast offered this interesting information, which I did not see repeated in most other mainstream reports:
Monis walked into the café on Monday and took everyone inside hostage. He used some of the captives as human shields and forced others to hold a black flag with white Arabic writing against the window. ...
Monis had been convicted on charges related to offensive letters he sent to the families of Australian soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan. He was out on bail as an alleged accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, as well as a string of 50 indecent and sexual-assault charges in connection to his time as a self-proclaimed spiritual leader.
Monis used a YouTube account to post a series of videos showing hostages reciting his demands, which included the delivery of the black flag of ISIS. He asked “to please broadcast on all media that this is an attack on Australia by the Islamic State,” and to speak to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (YouTube has since removed the videos from the account.)
Yet at the end of this same report, readers were told:
The flag was the most striking symbol of the drama. A black banner with white Arabic lettering that appears to be the Shahada, a central tenet of Islam that states: “There is no god but the God, Mohammed is the messenger of God.” The banner might perhaps be the flag of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), according to a tweet from The Sydney Morning Herald. The group is not known for espousing violence in the manner of al Qaeda or ISIS, but it does support the establishment of a caliphate uniting Muslims around the world.
Monis’s motive is still unknown.
So here is the question that haunted me: What is the difference between a terrorist's "motive" and his "demands"?
Numerous reports showed, beyond any doubt as far as I am concerned, that Monis appears to have been a "lone wolf" operator of some kind. It is also clear that his actions could have been linked, on way or another, to several events in his troubled life -- including the fact that he might be on his way to prison.
But why not quote the actual content of his demands? He may have been a lone wolf, but why not quote his own words linking the attack to support for the Islamic state? At the very least, his motives appear to have been linked to ISIS and its calls for violence.
Yet at the Washington Post, editors called Monis a "self-styled Muslim cleric" and, as many did, stated that his "motives for the hostage-taking at the Lindt Chocolate Cafe remain unclear." This report added:
The long showdown captured the world’s attention and raised questions about whether it was a “lone wolf” attack inspired by calls from militant groups such as the Islamic State. ...
The Islamic State and other extremist groups have threatened Australia with violence for its participation in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria. Australia, in response, has imposed new security measures in recent months and made several arrests of suspects accused of plotting acts of violence.
Unless I missed it in later updates, the Post did not, however, quote the actual public demands made by the gunman, using his hostages as his public voice during the drama that unfolded live before the world's cameras.
Once again, don't demands point toward motive?
In a sidebar to its main report, The New York Times offered quite a bit of depth about this man's life and beliefs. However, once again, the public demands were missing.
The police have said that Mr. Monis presented himself as a spiritual healer and conducted business for a time on Station Street in Wentworthville, a western suburb of Sydney.
A website apparently associated with Mr. Monis included condemnation of the United States and Australia for their military actions against Islamic militants in Iraq and Afghanistan. News reports said the site also contained a posting saying Mr. Monis had recently converted from Shia to Sunni Islam, and SITE, an organization that monitors Islamic extremist groups, said he posted a pledge of allegiance to the “Caliph of the Muslims.” The posting appeared to refer to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State militant group, SITE said, though the posting did not mention them by name.
Mr. Monis apparently emigrated to Australia from Iran around 1996, and was previously known as Manteghi Boroujerdi or Mohammad Hassan Manteghi. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said he was granted political asylum. In a broadcast interview in 2001, he claimed to have worked for the Iranian intelligence ministry and to have fled the country in fear for his life, leaving behind a wife and family.
So once again, here is my question: Why not quote the actual words of the gunman's public demands in which he links his actions to the Islamic State? And if this is what he demanded, doesn't this point to motive? Or am I missing something, some other definition of the word "motive"?