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Bourke St mall deaths show how fleeting life can be

Bourke St flowers
Mourners have left hundreds of tributes to the victims of the car attack in the Melbourne CBD. Photo: AAP
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This is how slender life is. It is a walk along Elizabeth Street in the city. It is crossing the Bourke St Mall. It is simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is bad luck. It is tragedy wrapped in the daily humdrum of ordinary things, of doing ordinary things among the habits and routines of a life.

They could not see what was going to happen on Friday afternoon in Melbourne as it careered towards them. They could not prevent it. They were defenceless. It was merciless in its consequences; a vicious sideswipe of cosmic, lethal dimensions.

People were going about their business, as I was with my son, in the city just an hour or so before. Everyone dies, but no one deserves to die like this. Five have – babies, adults. Scores have been injured. Men, women and children.

Melbourne rampage
An empty pram lies on the ground after police apprehended the driver. Photo: AAP

It took just a man and a car. Not a bomb, not a machine gun. A man in a car. This is the cruelty of the incomprehensible.

This is not terrorism come to wreak devastation and death upon an enemy. This is not Nice last Bastille Day when a truck was deliberately driven along a promenade killing 86 people and maiming more than 400. The driver Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was known to police but not for his radicalism. Islamic State will not claim responsibility for Friday’s outrage.

In Melbourne, this driver was on the radar. Said police commissioner Graeme Ashton: “What we do know of the person is there is an extensive family violence history involved. He has come to our attention on many occasions in the past. We have mental health and drug-related issues in the background of this particular person.

suspect melbourne
The car pictured outside Flinders St railway station before the deaths.

“He has been coming to our attention more recently over recent days in relation to assaults, family violence-related assaults.”

What no one could know is the trajectory his past and present would fashion into the actions on Friday. There was simply no radar. This is different to deadly catastrophes of nature, such as the avalanche in Italy where a hotel was buried under snow and scores of people are missing, presumed dead. The guests had been waiting to leave. Now they truly are the departed.

Tonight, families and friends are sitting and standing in vigil by a man, woman or child, willing life to remain in their bodies. Some, tragically, are breathing in the silence, walking in the spaces, where a life used to be.

It only took a short moment of madness to cut the cord. This is terror drained of reason, baseless of belief, ideology or sense. This was death as a sliver that ripped through the surface of an ordinary Melbourne day.

This is not what Emily Dickson meant when she wrote:

Because I could not stop for death/He kindly stopped for me.

There is no rhyme nor reason that can bring solace to this grief. Death, a companion to us all eventually, came as a stranger to strangers. It’s not fair. It’s beyond heartbreak.

The dead and the injured were innocent victims of a driver and a car.

When the police investigations are completed, and the matter processed by the courts, the hollowing in certainty, of safety, with which we all need to function, will remain, a slight indentation in some, a gouging in others. This is the start of a terror. And yet life goes on, for how could we not refuse to go on living? This is also a terror – to move, as one always has, beyond.

Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor.

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