[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on December 19, 2014]
I probably wouldn’t have followed the hostage-taking incident in Sydney, Australia so closely, but my middle son is currently visiting the city. (Knowing his mother–and being a good son–he called even before I’d heard the news reports, telling me “don’t freak out, I’m nowhere near where this is occurring.”)
We now know that this horrific episode, which cost two innocent people their lives, was not a terrorist act, at least in the political sense; it was a solitary crime committed by a mentally-deranged individual. Still, as Reuters reported, the perpetrator’s move to force hostages to display an Islamic flag ” immediately raised hackles in some quarters.”
A man shouting anti-Islamic abuse near the café during the standoff was moved on by police, while Muslim community leaders reported women wearing the hijab had been spat on.
Then something heartwarming happened:
Inspired by the Twitter hashtag “I’ll ride with you”, some commuters heading into the city for work on Tuesday gave their support to Muslims who might feel vulnerable amid concerns about a blowback after the hostage drama.
The hashtag was trending around the world, popping up across Asia, Europe, Africa and North America as it featured in more than 300,000 tweets. Actor Russell Crowe, who grew up in Sydney and keeps a home here, added his star power to the campaign.
Sydney is home to around half of Australia’s 500,000 Muslims.
The hashtag began trending on Twitter ahead of the evening commute on Monday, sparked by a Facebook post by Sydney woman Rachael Jacobs who described her encounter with a Muslim woman who took off her head covering: “I ran after her at the train station. I said ‘put it back on. I’ll walk with you’.”
That prompted other Sydneysiders to take to Twitter, detailing their bus and train routes home and offering to ride with anybody who felt uncomfortable, using the hashtag “Illwalkwithyou”.
On Tuesday morning, Jacobs said she was overwhelmed with the campaign she had inadvertently started: “Mine was a small gesture because of sadness that someone would ever feel unwelcome because of beliefs.”
I’d like to believe that something similarly spontaneous and reassuring could happen in the United States–that enough of us would put aside the stereotyping and suspicion of people with whom we don’t share beliefs or skin color or other tribal markers, to see each other simply as humans to whom we should offer reassurance and support.
I’d like to believe that, but given the animus permeating today’s environment, I’m not sure I do.