Remembering Port Arthur

Twenty years after the Port Arthur massacre, Hobart's former dean reflects on the brief unity that sprang from the horror.

PHOTO: Andrew Braithwaite/Flickr

By Stuart Blackler

April 28 2016We were police and paramedics, doctors and nursing staff, representatives of the Queen, clergy and judges, political leaders and diplomats from countries around the world, reporters and television crews. We were bellringers preparing to ring the lament of a muffled peal, we were a young policeman who was first to enter a cafe where the atrocity had taken place and who collapsed at seeing the unimaginable. We were those working with the coroner, we were those who prepared the dead for burial. We were the father of two young girls who had gone with their mother for a day’s outing in that idyllic autumn day with not a cloud in the sky. We were those torn apart inside as they had tried to protect one they loved more than anything, but to no avail. We were those who lived in a sedate and beautiful city. And we were all silent.

We were in the unaccustomed sound and sight of more helicopters than we would have thought were available heading south across the majestic river and nearby hills; and then there were the sirens, like a constant injured animal wail which seemed to continue for hours. And we were silent.

When workers constructing a stand outside a cathedral wanted a mate to pass a wrench or help to lift a plank of wood, their request was almost whispered.

On the new day after that Sunday of slaughter as people were walking to work and passed familiar faces, nothing was said, but eyes looked into eyes and we shared silent hearts.

We were one in our silence in a unity which was there all the time but so deep that it was not even taken for granted. A unity of a sort never before experienced and one hopes never will be again.

We were not shot, we did not have the physical scars and pain. We do not have the emotional scars of those who were plunged into an abyss of grief. We could scarcely imagine the hole in their hearts, but were overwhelmed by the dignity of those who had been so cruelly treated when a gunman opened fire. There was nothing to say- silence was eloquent.

And twenty years on? Seeing the footage of that scarred day, hearing from those who had been affected, glimpsing consequential events of what had occurred, something deeply moving happened.

Twenty years ago we were preoccupied trying to do our best for those around us, but there was no room to contextualise. So, what happened? There was a realisation as never before of the horror of that ravaging at Port Arthur.

No glib explanations possible, no pious cold comfort, no rationalisation, but that overwhelming sense of being one, of a flowing through us all of what we might call a consciousness of humanity. Perhaps, just perhaps, we have come to see that there was love there, and that love is more powerful than death, or darkness. Perhaps Bishop David Jenkins got it when he said, “God is in the mess”. And we hope that is what we have come to see and believe.

Dr Stuart Blackler was dean of St David’s Cathedral, Hobart from 1993 to 2005.