Terror comes in waves. The first is the bullet, knife or bomb. Then, the maiming or the death. Then there is the grief.
The third drops into lives like a large stone dropped into a lake; it radiates out, slams into those directly affected and touches others with fainter ripples. Sometimes, it drowns those over whom it washes.
It is an insidious weapon, for it aims to kill and then, after the killing, germinates in those still living. The wound grows. To borrow a phrase of Charles Baudelaire, it is the flower of evil.
On Bourke Street last Friday, in the heart of Melbourne, it came in the shape of a man, a knife, a vehicle with emptying gas bottles.
As did Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, the offender die, so too did a flower of Melbourne, Pellegrini’s Sisto Malaspina. Two others were wounded, Tasmanian Rod Patterson and a security guard from Hampton Park. Was this the attacker’s intention? Random death. Or was it, in the classic definition of terrorism, a vile act on innocents so as to instil fear in the wider population?
That is the act and the residue. But, as we keep walking down the streets of Melbourne, are we terrified out of our routine? No. Is there a shadow over Bourke Street? Yes. But for only a time. This is not a campaign such as the IRA’s against Britain during the Troubles. There are no bombs in pubs, nor car bombs regularly on the High Street.
This is not the Great Terror of Stalin’s murderous reign when it is estimated that in just two years from 1936 to 1938, a million people were executed, sent to the gulag or disappeared. Poet Anna Akhmatova captured that clench of terror to the heart in Requiem:
You were taken away at dawn. I followed you
As one does when a corpse is being removed.
Children were crying in the darkened house.
A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God. . .
The cold of an icon was on your lips, a death-cold
On your brow – I will never forget this.
Last Friday’s attack was the latest in a string of incidents in Melbourne involving an unhinged mind bent on destruction against strangers just going about their lives. There is no coordinated network of terror at work. Politicians, however, have said otherwise.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Shire Ali was an outright terrorist (he had had his passport cancelled because of fears he would travel to Syria). There were no other excuses. It is impossible not to discount the weight of politics coming down on the scales of this commentary. Shire Ali’s parents say he was mentally unwell. ‘‘Please stop turning this into a political game,” they have asked. “This isn’t a guy who had any connections with terrorism but was simply crying for help.’’
Still, it was a murderous cry. And Sisto is dead.
There are many shades of terror. The West has gone to war against it in recent decades. It is the eternal conflict, for who would be so foolish to claim victory? But when terror comes to the streets of Melbourne, it flares, taking life with it, and then fades. And sometimes justice surfaces. This week Bourke Street driver James Gargasoulas was found guilty of murdering six people and recklessly hurting 27 others when he tore down the street. The jury took 57 minutes to decide his guilt.
His rampage, and those of others, have not stopped life in the city. We do not live with terror in our hearts. Grief yes. It is a rawness rubbing against the days and nights until it assumes a form like a silhouette. It is with us, and of us.
But there for every shadow there is light, and it is of us, too. It also flares, in the shape of a heart. And, in the long run, it is irresistible. Terror cannot prevail against such a force. For we all carry within us the city.