Courier-Mail: We remain a lucky country

Michael wrote an opinion column for today’s Courier-Mail:

We remain a lucky country
THIS is what holy war feels like. And yet it hasn’t even begun.

Over 16 tortured hours in a Sydney cafe, beamed live across the country, Australia changed forever.

In those dreadful hours the bubble of our perception was pierced. The innocence we possessed, as recently as early on Monday morning, was lost. All at the hands of a lone, erratic gunman, described by his own lawyer as “damaged”, who draped himself in the cloak of jihad.

A man who has delivered this country into a new and unwelcome place. Into a reality that is as ugly as it is unforgiving and one we wish we didn’t know.

But that is what he has done, the “fake sheik” Man Monis. And as much as we would like, we can never take it back.

What happened this week in Martin Place was an act of terrorism, no question. Homegrown. On our soil.

An act designed to strike terror into the hearts of a population. That it may have been artifice, and not the work of a terrorist organisation, matters not. Nor that it wasn’t true hardened jihad, of the kind of nightmare now waged across the world.

For it reached us Australians, all. And spoke to us of something we didn’t want to hear – that we are vulnerable. That they can reach us. That there is nothing to stop them. If they have the will.

That, I despair, is our new reality. The one we must now live with. But we are not alone. It is a reality we share with other liberal democracies. It is a burden we now shoulder with them. Together.

For it is the price we pay. The price for being a responsible member of the international community, willing to stand up for sanctions or military interventions when we deem it right and in our national interests. The price for being a lowly middle power in the world, unable to secure its own defences, which must align itself with unpopular American endeavours at the risk of the ire of Islamic militants. The price for our freedoms.

In a liberal democracy, whose natural instinct is to resist unwarranted authority, that believes everyone has the right to have their say, and to associate as they want. That believes in defending even those voices that oppose it.

The British pay this price, with Underground bombings and the butchering of a soldier on a London street. Europeans pay this price with synagogue attacks and train bombings in Madrid.

Americans pay this price. The deaths of two Sydney hostages measured against the slaughter of more than 3000 on 9/11 by 19 unrelenting jihadists with nothing more than Stanley knives or box cutters.

For, in the end, this week we are still the lucky country. As appalling as that is to say. For unholy holy war is yet to really visit us.

As it visited Pakistan. Upon its children. During the very hours that we began to mourn the Sydney siege.

While the incredible bed of Martin Place flowers grew, bringing tears to all of our eyes, six Pakistani gunmen scaled the walls of a school in the city of Peshawar, near the Afghan border.

In the name of Taliban jihad they went, room to room, executing children. Shooting them systemically as they hid, under their desks, in their classrooms. More than 130 of them. Children.

Kids who survived remember the attackers screaming “God is Great” as they fired.

Just writing these words give me pause. Makes me stop. And cry. My mind running wild with the sounds in my head as I imagine them.

For I have seen the jihad Man Monis intoned, in his pathetic little way. After my years in Afghanistan, and lifetimes in Iraq.

It is a kind of wretched beyond compare. For I’ve seen it. Felt it. Having lived in Baghdad amid daily waves of suicide bombings and car-bomb attacks. With beheaded bodies littering the city’s morning streets. All in the name of a holy war of the sort Man Monis tried to claim.

A war the fake sheik dared to seek to bring to us in Australia.

Man Monis intoned the name of the brutal ISIS, by displaying a banner of Islamic militancy and demanding their flag be delivered to the ill-fated cafe.

But he was not one of theirs. Not ISIS. He was barely a pretender. Untrained. Poorly armed. And alone. Not part of a suicidal team of gunmen strapped with explosives to their chests, executing a devilishly planned and savagely executed military operation devised by merciless professionals.

I have seen that. I have seen ISIS up close and personal. I have been held, ever so briefly, hostage by their fighters. I was in contact with its founder.

I know their true darkness. And I can tell you – thankfully – we are yet to see it, even after Martin Place.

And that’s why we are still the lucky country. For we have only had but a taste.

There is a greater darkness out there. And I pray it never comes.

Michael Ware, a former Courier-Mail investigative journalist, was a war correspondent for TIME magazine and for CNN. He is now making a film about his time in Iraq.