After storming a Sydney café and taking hostages, Man Haron Monis began issuing demands. Captives who spoke by phone with an Australian television station, while being held at gunpoint, said he had two. He wanted a meeting with the country's prime minister – a perennial standard for delusional hostage takers. But he had another request, which reveals not only his tenuous grasp on reality, but also his limited connection to his supposed cause. He demanded that police give him an Islamic State flag. He didn't have one.
Mr. Monis had brought a flag with him, and during the hostage taking he put it in the window of the café . But at some point he seems to have realized or been told that his alleged ISIS flag was, in fact, something else. His banner was black, like the ISIS flag, and it had words on it in Arabic, like the ISIS flag. But it's not the ISIS flag. It's an ancient Islamic banner containing the Shahada, or Islamic profession of faith.
Imagine someone claiming to be the world's most passionate Montreal Canadiens supporter – while proudly wearing a Maple Leafs sweater. Or expressing one's profound love of all things Irish – by cluelessly hoisting the Italian flag. Or extolling the lyrical virtuosity of Eminem – while waving around a picture of Vanilla Ice.
We don't mean to make light of what happened on Monday in Australia. Three people are dead. Others are injured. A country is traumatized. But it's important to try to understand who the gunman was, and what moved him. A runaway train can be as dangerous as a hijacked one, and maybe more so. But they are not the same, and different threats call for different responses.
Like Canada's Parliament Hill shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Mr. Monis may have been less political terrorist, and more mentally unhinged runaway train. He had a long history of criminal involvements, most having nothing to do with radical Islam. He ran a Sydney clinic where he offered services as a "spiritual healer" and self-proclaimed expert in the arts of astrology and black magic. This year, he was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault and indecent assault against seven patients. He was also charged with being an accessory in the murder of his wife. At times, he claimed to be a peace activist.
He sometimes styled himself as a sheik or ayatollah – a religious leader – but actual religious leaders in Australia's Shia Islamic community had long said that he had no such standing. Which may be why his website not long ago announced that he had converted from Shia to Sunni Islam. He was confused about a lot of things; the ISIS flag was the least of it. He was angry at the world and grasping at straws.
On Monday, a former lawyer described Mr. Monis as "a damaged-goods individual." It's hard to disagree with the characterization.