Why not let the army handle the Sydney siege?

The coronial inquest into the 2014 Sydney siege at the Lindt Café, which led to the tragic death of two hostages heard how the Australian Army had contacted the NSW Police and offered their assistance to best resolve the situation. The offer was turned down to the apparent dismay of some within police ranks – you can read more here.

Clearly, the situation is a hugely difficult one involving high-pressure judgments, but in light of the fact that army commandos had actually carried out an exercise in the vicinity of the siege, only a month earlier and have far more experience of combat in close-quarters than their police counterparts, why didn’t the police cede control?

Well, there lies the clichéd $64 million question and as is usual with a drama of many moving parts, the reasons are undoubtedly, many. One unnamed ADF (Australian Defence Force) source talked of “police pride” getting in the way, which unsurprisingly won’t be substantiated by the police. What can’t be argued, however, is the way such an approach – had it been taken up – would have been perceived by the public. Quite simply, as laymen, we put the army on a higher footing in terms of brute force than we do the police, as they have the scale in weaponry to justify such a notion; greater firepower though means greater threats. It would be a brave political leader to order the troops on to the streets of Sydney when the country was not at war. The impact on such images around the world would seriously damage the tourist revenue stream.

Yet, if the aim of the inquest is to get to the truth and apply some painfully learnt lessons to ensure the future safety of Australian citizens, it’s only right that we explore the army option more fully. Firstly, are we not already at war? Malcolm Turnbull has talked recently of broadening the war against terrorists, while predecessor, Tony Abbott’s readily referenced the threats to national security posed by terrorism. If that’s the story, why not keep to it? Secondly, the Coalition Government is viewed by the public as the most trusted to handle national security, so why not go the full ‘nine yards’ and leave them with a reminder they’ll find hard to forget?

As the tourist operators and the politicians know, the answer is fear. We may be able to render greater control through the army, but their presence would be greatly unnerving to the public. Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion, which tends to stay in our memories for an inordinate amount of time, which is no accident. Daniel Kahneman in his fantastic, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ details the dominance of negative outcomes over positive ones in human psychology. As he says, “threats are privileged above opportunities, as they should be.” Fear is closely aligned to these threatening feelings. The respected Lowy Institute recently revealed that only 24% of Australians feel “very safe” – you may question the definition, but you get the gist; relatedly, the think tank also found the majority of respondents – 55% of Australians – believed the country’s participation in fighting ISIS only increased the risk of terrorism at home. As Kahneman also knows very well, statistics offer a far more accurate rendition of reality than the way we feel. The chances of us being the victims of terror groups are unbelievably slim; however, as political leaders know, our emotions get in the way and if the people are feeling scared, political change will undoubtedly follow.