The day Australia lost itsinnocence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 April, 2006, 12:00am

Ten years after he committed Australia's worst mass murder, Martin Bryant is still seared on the nation's psyche, his very name prompting a wave of revulsion.

On April 28, 1996, he shot dead 35 people in the island state of Tasmania, laughing in the faces of his victims as he killed them at point-blank range with a semi-automatic rifle.

When Prime Minister John Howard leads the 10th anniversary memorial service today at the Port Arthur tourist site, the killer's name will not be spoken.

'This was not just a tragedy for Port Arthur, or for Tasmania, it was a national tragedy,' said Edward Gauden, who helped counsel the tightly knit rural community that was devastated by the massacre. 'This was pre-9/11. We were pretty naive to the world. Australia lost its innocence that day.'

Today's service at the historic convict site will begin at 1.30pm, coinciding with the moment Bryant left his meal at the Broad Arrow Cafe, took an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from his sports bag and began firing.

He stalked from table to table, ignoring the pleas of his victims, and killed 20 people in the cafe and adjoining gift shop in 90 seconds.

Bryant, a misfit 28-year-old with the IQ of a child aged 11, continued his killing spree outside the cafe, hunting down people at random in the car park, on tourist buses and the ticket booth, before fleeing to the nearby Seascape Cottage guesthouse, where he was captured after an 18-hour police siege.

He pleaded guilty to 35 counts of murder and is serving a life sentence at Hobart's Risdon Prison, without possibility of parole. He is in the jail's hospital wing, unable to mix with the prison population because of the risk that he will be killed by other inmates.

Michael Young, of the school of psychology at the University of New South Wales, said Bryant was a confronting figure for Australian society because his act was so difficult to rationalise and explain.

'All you are left with is some kind of amorphous concept of evil which people are very uncomfortable with,' he said.

David Mutton was chief psychologist with the New South Wales police in 1996 and helped with post- trauma counselling at Port Arthur in the days following the massacre.

He described the killing spree as a 'defining moment in the Australian psyche' and said Bryant caused a mixture of 'revulsion and fascination'.

'There is a sense of monstrosity there, this sandy-haired innocence, the almost angelic face that is incongruous with the monster,' said Dr Mutton, now a forensic psychologist at the University of Western Sydney.

The cafe, partially demolished after the massacre, will serve as a backdrop to today's memorial service.

Stephen Large, the chief executive officer of the Port Arthur site, said the massacre had had a profound effect on the nation.

'Something was taken away from us that day. It caused an immense amount of hurt and grief and pain.'