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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Tue 16
Dec
2014

Australia gets closer

What Max Reckons On September 11, 2001, the city of Melbourne, Australia evacuated its World Trade Center. This is a short building on the banks of the Yarra River, a short distance from Melbourne’s central business district, a little over ten thousand miles from New York. It used to have a casino; before that, it hosted an exhibition of waxworks from Madam Tussaud’s. If you ran a line from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan through the center of the Earth, you would exit the planet not so very far from here—closer, certainly, to Australia than to any other country in the world.

Australia is a long way from everywhere. A flight to Sydney takes 15 hours from Los Angeles, 21 hours from London, 14 hours from Johannesburg, and 10 hours from Tokyo. There is no stopping off in Australia on the way to somewhere else, unless you’re headed to Antarctica. You can’t take in Australia as a side-trip while visiting somewhere else nearby. It is an island continent that you reach only by making it your ultimate destination and exerting a concerted effort.

This isolation is the core of Australia’s identity: it is the reason the country has an aboriginal population that existed undisturbed for 40,000 years, and some of the world’s strangest and most inimitable flora and fauna, and why, indeed, it was chosen to be a penal colony by the British in 1788. It is a place you go to be removed from the world.

But on 9/11, terrorists were attacking World Trade Centers, so Melbourne evacuated hers. This didn’t seem silly at the time; that day made all horrors plausible. No precaution was too extreme when yesterday it had been inconceivable that terrorists might take thousands of lives in New York and across the US, and today it had happened. So for a while, Australia forgot it wasn’t part of the world. “We are all Americans,” Australians said on 9/11—September 12, actually, on antipodean time, since Australia is so far away it is usually a different day altogether. And we meant it: we were deeply shocked to see acts of foreign terrorism, always previously associated with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places, happening somewhere Over There, become suddenly intimate and recognizable.

Over time, though, the War on Terror became the War on Iraq, and the American flags on TV reminded us that although 9/11 affected the Western world, at its most pointed and personal, it was an American story. Australia, as usual, was watching from afar. We sent troops to Afghanistan and to Iraq, maintaining solidarity with our American cousins, but ultimately, we came to realize that the US was Over There, too.

In 2002, 88 Australians were killed by a radical Islamist group bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali, a popular holiday destination. Bali is a mere six hours from Sydney, and only two and a half from Darwin, the closest Australian city. It was a traumatic event, but again, it wasn’t quite Here. More recently, there have been police terror sweeps in Australian cities, with arrests made and, apparently, plots foiled. The federal government warned us that groups had developed with the motivation and ability to carry out local attacks.

You live a charmed life in Australia. The streets are safe; the weather is terrific; the people are friendly. The ocean keeps everything out. Or, at least, slows it down. We complain about that, when a car costs thirty thousand dollars, or a TV show won’t hit our screens right away, but it’s the ocean that has allowed Australia to stay Australia in the face of relentless globalization. It’s given us more than a decade in which to rethink our ideas on society and our way of life, and the trade-offs between freedom and security we’re willing to make, without having to do so in the immediate aftermath of a national tragedy.

On Monday, a man with a gun took hostages in the middle of Sydney in what he claimed to be an attack on Australia by the Islamic State. A self-described cleric with a history of antagonism toward Australian military involvement in Afghanistan, he was, by all reports, a dangerous loner rather than a member of an organized terrorist group. By the time the siege was over, two hostages were dead.

If this man had claimed to be acting for some other cause—disgruntlement at the tax code, or the high price of cars—we wouldn’t call it terrorism. We would call it what it is: a lunatic with a gun. But that would overlook the deeper trend, which is that Australia’s oceans are shrinking. Today technology allows a man to be more connected to militant extremists across the globe—in spirit, if nothing else—than he was to his neighbors in Bexley North. He can latch on to toxic ideas from the other side of the globe and bring them into Sydney, feeling he is part of a global cause.

Whether we call it a siege or terrorism, this is something that used to happen Over There. And now it’s here. It wasn’t unexpected, and arrived more benignly than it could have, and today the country will get on with business as usual. But life is becoming a little less charmed. We are no longer so far away.

This piece was written for CNN.com and an edited version can be found online here. Another piece I wrote for CNN.com a while back on office oppression is right here or here.

Comments

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1001.0010.0101 (#925)

Location: Turn left at your CPU
Quote: "How can something be deemed artificial if it is itself. e.g. A.I."
Posted: 1403 days ago

I think oppression has always been here, and many other places, in the form of Government policies, corporate handshaking, media manipulation and social stigma. We tend to only take notice when a weapon is involved.

Children struggle in school; the middle aged struggle to make ends meet and elderly struggle to maintain dignity in their cattle yard environment.

We are a disgraceful nation perpetuating a pyramid model of greed with the shining star on top known as the U.S.A. We are now, Little America.

Little America will now 'bang on' about this for too long while we forget what was the single most deadliest attack by a lone gunman in history until 2011; Martin Bryant.

God bless Little America.

Machine Man subscriber Xavier Desroches (#1840)

Location: Brossard, Qc, Ca
Quote: "Smile, Tomorrow Will Be Worse... - Murphy"
Posted: 1403 days ago

On Monday, I was half asleep when I heard on the new that "some gunman took some hostage [somewhere]". Now I remember it was in Australia, but I guess that then, my brain just disregarded that thinking "it's far away, you're safe, don't think about it". I too, live in a mostly "violence-spared" country, Canada, and whenever I hear about acts of violence, it's too easy for me to ignore. I said "too easy", because I do think it is, too easy, to forget.

Sure, I don't want to spend my days worrying about such a thing happening to me, to my dear ones, but at the same time, I need to be remembered how we're all so close one another. Even though vast distance separates us all, even though we might have some strong differences in our beliefs regarding this and that, we're still all living beings. Thanks for reminding me of that.

Graeme Raid (#6750)

Location: Southern California
Posted: 1403 days ago

I read your opinion on CNN's website.
I was born in Melbourne but have lived in the U.S. since 1981. Three years before I moved here the Sydney Hilton was the site of a bombing designed to disrupt the CHOGM. The explosion (today we might call it an IED) killed two workers and a third person (a police officer) died later. I think many would agree that this was an act of terrorism. You were barely 5 years old and so you would be completely forgiven for not noting that this was perhaps Australia's earliest act of terrorism on it's home soil. (Of course, Ned Kelly's Irish kinfolk may disagree.)
I maintain reasonably close ties with my family back home, and my sense of things is that this event has not caused the same kind of knee-jerk reaction that might occur here in the U.S. The coverage here has been fairly intense....CNN posting your piece is an example... Clearly Australia shares many, but not all, of the goals and ideals of U.S. society, but ( I think) we Aussies still retain a healthy skepticism that is not really a feature of the "typical" American psyche. Sadly, what I have already seen is that this event reinforces the view of some that if even one of the hostages had only been carrying a firearm it would have ended sooner. The "#illridewithyou" Twitter posts demonstrate a different response to that which occurs here. Australia has matured as a nation and is not in shock at this event. My guess is that a higher percentage of Australians have traveled outside of their country than almost any other country's citizens. Like the death of a loved one from an illness; we know what the result will be and we are saddened when the end comes. We pause, and then life goes on and we cope. We know we are not immune; acts of terror will occur.
Maybe it's just my naive optimism, or my physical separation from my homeland, but I not convinced that the charmed life down under has suffered.

Jorge (#5668)

Location: Off Burdekin Avenue
Quote: "Ommmmmmmmmmmmm"
Posted: 1403 days ago

Funnily enough, I came to Australia the same year this lunatic was allowed in. (No, he wasn't sitting next to me on the plane). Yes, Australia is indeed a place you go to be removed from the world. That's why I'm here, to be removed from the world. And you argue that within Australia, Canberra is a place where you go to be removed from the place you go to be removed from the world (I hope that makes sense! I think Max has been to Canberra and might agree with me... :)).
What this idiot did is what any cowardly idiot with a gun will do. I teach this to my boys: Only a coward will shoot a gun against another human being - whether they are called lunatics or terrorists, whether they are white policemen shooting black kids who are playing with a toy gun. So I tell them to make a choice: they can be brave and not have a gun or be cowards and bear guns.
That said, someone said we're an intellectual backwater - oh the irony of it. Aren't we lucky to have our Max Barry(s)?

Oh, Canberra, jeeze it's quiet here...

Jorge (#5668)

Location: Off Burdekin Avenue
Quote: "Ommmmmmmmmmmmm"
Posted: 1403 days ago

That should have read "And you could argue that within Australia..." Sorry!

Machine Man subscriber Arsenic (#4487)

Location: MEL-bn, uh-STRAYL-yuh
Posted: 1403 days ago

You've just done what the gunman himself was trying, and failed, to do - linked him with terrorist groups.

This is why we can't have nice things, Max.

Not every Muslim with a gun is a terrorist. That is, they aren't until we hand them that kind of gravitas or legitimacy.

That's the real story, here. We want to be so important that a terrorist would attack us. The truth is, the guy was asking the police to bring him an ISIL flag as part of his hostage demands **because he hadn't been able to get his hands on one himself**. He was a Sunni Muslim - someone who would have been executed by ISIL as an apostate - and he was still desperate to have their stamp on his personal grievance so he could be seen as important.

And you've just done that for him.

So, you know, thanks. Cos now terrorism gets a win on the board that they didn't earn, and a bunch more people are misled as to what this incident was about.

It wasn't about terrorism. It was about a dude accused of murdering his wife, and not wanting to go to jail, and having an obvious mental health issue, and him being out on bail despite being so dangerous.

But all that is ignored. Dude was Muslim. Terrorists. Etc.

Lame, Max. Super lame.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1402 days ago

@Graeme: I read about that Sydney Hilton attack while researching this piece, and you're right, I had no memory of it.

@Arsenic: I mostly agree with you, except for the part about me being super lame. I'd just say I think it's significant how easily ideas can cross borders now. I mean, you can read tweets by ISIS. And a guy can feel connected to that even though he isn't. I don't think it matters much whether you get your official ISIS badge at an overseas training camp, or how exactly anyone defines "terrorism," or who's Muslim and who isn't; either way, you have a guy killing people while claiming to fight for ISIS. What I think is notable is how the technology that's pulling us all closer together is bringing this kind of thing closer, too. Lines of influence going all over.

Mary Rose (#2854)

Location: San Francisco, CA
Quote: "go big or stay home"
Posted: 1402 days ago

That was very interesting, Max. I've never been to Australia and, to be honest, don't generally give it a lot of thought (which goes right to your point, doesn't it), but whenever i think about travelling, it is one of the places I think about. But it's so damn far, which puts it at the pricey end of travel, which in turn causes it to be a thought and not a reality.

I can honestly say I've never considered the Australian psyche, but it makes sense that isolation (but not necessarily isolationism) is at its core. Thank you for this interesting glimpse of it.

Machine Man subscriber Joel Pearson (#2145)

Location: Canberra, Australia
Posted: 1385 days ago

If you were trying to find Max's older article on CNN and found a 404, archive.org has it. (Tried to post a link, but it wouldn't let me)

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1384 days ago

Thanks Joel. I've rehosted it here:

www.maxbarry.com/2011/04/15/news.html

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