The siege of the Lindt chocolate café in Sydney this week by a 'lone wolf' gunman, Man Haran Monis, was a tragic event. Three people are now dead - including the perpetrator - and many were injured, including one police officer.
It is often tragic or shocking events such as this that demonstrate the failings of modern 24/7 news gathering - both from the citizen journalists and the major networks. Think of these three issues that have been debated extensively in the past 24 hours:
. The gunman was a Muslim. It was clearly a single-person Jihad against Western society.
. The rolling blogs launched by almost every major news network that featured nothing more than banal comments about how little is actually known about the situation.
. Members of the public flocking to the site of the siege to take selfies so that their smiling image can be featured on social networks.
Australia accepted Man Haran Monis as a refugee from Iran back in 1996. He had claimed that his life was in danger due to his criticism of the regime. Other versions of his refugee story allege that he was running a travel agency in Iran and eloped with $200,000 of his customer's money.
Whatever the real story, he generated a long criminal record in Australia that included sending hate mail to the families of Australian troops killed in action in Afghanistan. Last year he was charged as an accessory to the murder of his wife and this year he was charged with sexually abusing a young woman who had sought his help with 'spiritual healing' services.
Fortunately the Australian public has responded to many of the anti-Islam comments by offering to support their fellow citizens. The general public appear more able than many media commentators to see that this was probably one very disturbed individual who went on a rampage rather than an ISIS attack on the hedonistic consumption of chocolate and coffee.
But a rolling media that needs information fuels this hatred. This siege lasted for approximately 17 hours and even the police did not know the identity of the perpetrator for much of this time. How many times can journalists and bloggers keep on repeating that nothing is happening right now? It's only natural that in this kind of environment the debate would turn to the possible reasons why this had happened and a Muslim conspiracy is more exciting to debate than anything as boring and straightforward as 'he was crazy.'
But what really angered me about this whole situation was the selfies. Members of the public took smiling photos with the café in the background as the siege was in progress. Why?
Of course the answer is complex. Partly it is because this is possible. Developments in the mobile Internet, smart phones, and social networks that have only taken place in the past 6-7 years mean that it is now possible for anyone to publish a photo from anywhere and for it to be shared globally within seconds.
I am certain that if 9/11 had taken place in September 2014, rather than 2001, then our social networks would have been filled with smiling selfies featuring a backdrop of tragic people throwing themselves out of the burning building.
The societal question is whether our behaviour as humans has really changed in the last seven years to the point where we now have such a low level of empathy with fellow humans in danger that we just consider their plight to be a good backdrop for an Instagram selfie.
I'm not a sociologist, but I believe that many academics will be exploring how celebrities such as Kim Kardashian are now able to build an entire career out of human voyeurism. Does the desire for a photo to be 'liked' outweigh any earlier ideas we may have held about etiquette, chivalry, and what is the right way to behave?
As I was trying to consider historical precedents for this type of behaviour I looked back into the diary of Samuel Pepys. In an entry he made on October 13th, 1660 Pepys said:
"I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy."
On the same day, Pepys also noted:
"Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross."
He then describes how upset he was that he broke his wife's basket, one he bought for her in Holland. He appears to be more upset about the basket breakage than any of the public executions and carnage he witnessed in London that day.
Terrible public behaviour has always been with us. I believe that the taking of selfies at tragic events will subside as people establish new norms of public etiquette. At present we just don't know how to behave.