SYDNEY — Tearful Australians laid mounds of flowers at the site where a gunman held hostages for 16 hours at a popular Sydney cafe. The siege ended early Tuesday with a barrage of gunfire that left two hostages and the Iranian-born gunman dead, and a nation that has long prided itself on its peace rocked to its core.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott joined the outpouring of national mourning and laid a bouquet at Martin Place, the plaza in Sydney’s financial and shopping district where the crisis occurred that has since become the site of a makeshift memorial.
After a day of intense drama, a host of questions remained: Why was the gunman, a self-styled Muslim cleric with a sordid criminal history, let out on bail? How did he get hold of a shotgun in a country that bans gun sales? The siege heightened fears of a terror attack, but it also produced heart-rending displays of solidarity among Australians who reached out to their Muslim compatriots.
The gunman was identified as 50-year-old Man Haron Monis, whom Abbott said had “a long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability.” He was “a deeply disturbed individual” known to the police but he was not on a terror watch list, Abbott said.
Monis was convicted and sentenced last year to 300 hours of community service for sending what a judge called “grossly offensive” letters to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009.
He later was charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. Earlier this year, he was charged with the sexual assault of a woman in 2002. He has been out on bail on the charges.
Police were investigating whether he was the registered owner of the shotgun that he used.
Abbott said that the country’s senior officials have raised the same questions among themselves as the public into how this could happen.
“How can someone who has had such a long and checkered history not be on the appropriate watch list? And how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?” Abbott asked. “These are questions we need to look at carefully and calmly and methodically. That’s what we’ll be doing in the days and weeks ahead.”
Many Australians offered on Twitter to accompany people dressed in Muslim clothes who were afraid of a backlash against the country’s Muslim minority of 500,000 in a nation of 24 million. The hashtag #IllRideWithYou �X or I’ll Ride With You �X was used more than 90,000 times by early Tuesday.
But the most visible reaction the day after the siege was the flowers blanketing the pavement at Martin Place, where the siege began during rush hour Monday morning. The gunman burst into the Lindt Chocolat Cafe, took 17 people inside as hostages and then forced some to hold a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith above the shop window’s festive inscription of “Merry Christmas.”
“I’ll never forget this day as long as I live,” said Jenny Borovina, who was in tears with two friends carrying white flowers to the site. The effect of the standoff would leave a permanent scar on Australia’s psyche, she predicted. “Our laid-back nature has just changed.”
Like so many who work in the area, Borovina said she was locked down in her office near the cafe for more than four hours Monday before police gave her the all-clear to leave. During that time, she said, she called her son to say take care. She also called her aunt, asking her to look after her son if she didn’t make it out alive.
“Australia was a really safe place before,” said Andrea Wang, who laid a bouquet of lilies at the site, near her office.
“I hope our country gets through this very quickly,” she said, adding that her family from China had been calling. “They worry about me in this country.”