The Port Arthur Massacre
Today we're going to point the skeptical eye at a modern conspiracy theory, one that still stings sharply in the recent memories of Australians. In 1996, a young man from Hobart, 28-year-old Martin Bryant, loaded his car with guns and ammunition and went to the Port Arthur Historic Site, an old prison colony at the south end of the island of Tasmania. He killed 35 people and wounded 21 others, and was taken into custody after an overnight standoff and is currently serving a 1,035 year prison sentence without the possibility of parole.
For some, the Port Arthur massacre has become something like Australia's version of the Kennedy assassination. Some believe that no one man could have accomplished so much bloodshed. Some point to what they believe are discrepancies in the timelines of when Bryant is alleged to have been at various locations. Some believe the killings were too expert to have been done by anyone other than a trained killer. And finally, some believe that it was an elaborate conspiracy staged by the anti-gun lobby to provoke public sentiment. Many of the believers consider this to be evidence that the government wanted to terrorize the citizenry into banning all firearms, so that they might be able to exercise unchallenged tyranny. Such conspiracy theorists describe the event as a "psyop", a psychological operation by the government.
It should be fairly noted that few Australians believe any of the conspiracy theories, and a much larger number are angered by them, none more so than those who were there that day and escaped with their lives or watched their loved ones killed. But to evaluate the validity of a conspiracy theory, we take emotion out of the equation, and instead look to where the evidence leads.
Here is a quick summary of "the official version" of what happened. Martin Bryant, 28 years old with a clean shaven babyface and long blond hair, had an estimated IQ of 66. He received a large inheritance from a friend, with which his family tried to purchase a bed & breakfast cottage called Seascape in Port Arthur, Tasmania. But another couple, the Martins, bought it first, which Bryant took personally. On April 28, 1996, he loaded his yellow Volvo with guns and ammunition, went to Seascape, and murdered the Martins. He then drove to the nearby Port Arthur Historic Site and went to the tiny Broad Arrow Cafe, where he ate lunch, then pulled out an assault rifle and in 15 seconds, killed 12 people and injured 10. In the next 90 seconds, he went into the nearby gift shop and killed 8 more people, most of whom were crouching to hide or trapped in the small room. He then moved to the parking lot, where he killed more people trapped between or on board parked buses.
This whole time, Bryant repeatedly fired at people who were running or hiding, but having no marksmanship skills, he missed everyone except those to whom he was able to get very close.
He got into his car and drove away, passing fleeing people, and stopped when he saw a young mother running with her two children. He killed all three at point-blank range. Finding the park exit blocked with cars driven by confused people unsure what was happening, Bryant went to a BMW, killed all four people inside it, transferred some of his guns and ammunition to it and drove away. He stopped at a service station where he killed a girl and forced her boyfriend, Glenn Pears, into the trunk of the BMW, and drove off again.
He returned to the Seascape cottage where he had begun his day, and fired at passing cars, injuring several more people. He took Pears inside the house, set the BMW on fire, and barricaded himself in. Police began to arrive and Bryant held them all off with gunfire. An 18 hour standoff lasted until the next morning, when Bryant killed Pears and lit the house on fire. He eventually ran outside, on fire, and was apprehended as he pulled off his burning clothes. In all, he'd killed 35 and wounded 21.
In the aftermath, new gun control laws were enacted throughout a shocked Australia. More than anything else, this is what sparked the speculation that a hidden government agenda must have motivated the entire episode, part of a giant master plan to trick the unsuspecting public into willingly disarming.
Much is made by the conspiracy theorists of the claim that Bryant was sent to prison for life without a trial, which would indeed be shocking and seemingly unprecedented. It's also misleading. Bryant plead guilty to all charges, so it didn't go to trial, like every case in which the defendant pleads guilty to all charges. Despite being of acknowledged low intelligence, he was found competent to stand trial, a finding that has not been challenged. His lawyer persuaded him to plead guilty simply because the evidence against him was overwhelming; he had no realistic chance of getting off, and a guilty plea was the route to the best possible outcome for him. It was not a conspiracy against a patsy; it was his best legal option.
That Bryant was placed in solitary confinement for the first eight months of his sentence is said to be evidence that the government didn't want him to be able to reveal any truths about the conspiracy. It's possible this is the reason, but there are at least two other reasons that Bryant, and many other criminals like him, are kept in isolation. The first is that among his victims were children, murdered at close range for no reason. Prison inmates have a reputation for not taking kindly to child killers, especially to those who need to use a gun to do it, and it's more than likely that Bryant would have been attacked or even killed in prison if not kept separated. Indeed, there were specific threats against him. Even his meals were prepared separately by special staff to prevent anyone from trying to poison him. The second reason is that he was on suicide watch and was in a special hospital ward suicide-proof cell, and for good reason; he's attempted suicide at least twice so far.
Some conspiracy theorists claim that Bryant displayed extraordinary combat skills that could only belong to a highly trained expert, and not to an intellectually challenged kid with no firearms experience. One noted that the true perpetrator must be one of the top 10 or 20 shooters in the entire world. In fact Bryant displayed no special skills, killing nearly all of his victims within just a few meters, and some with the muzzle of his gun actually touching them. He missed all of his shots that were at any appreciable distance. Nor should it be surprising that the Port Arthur killer would be untrained; it's quite common for mass killings to be carried out by loners with no military connections or special training.
And then there are myriad small details on which some sources are unclear; for example, whether the knife with which Bryant killed Mr. Martin at Seascape was found in Bryant's bag in the Broad Arrow Cafe, or nearby. Some characterize discrepancies such as this as evidence that the knife must have been planted by police. There is also minimal publicly known evidence that physically places Bryant at the Port Arthur Historic Site at all on that day. There is speculation surrounding the appearance of an armed man on the roof of a building at Seascape cottage during the night. One need only scan through any of the many websites promoting the idea that the Port Arthur massacre was a government conspiracy to find many such questions raised.
But there is an alternate explanation for all of these questions that satisfies the available evidence without the need to introduce a conspiracy. Whatever evidence might exist is evidence in a murder case. It is not necessarily available to the public. Whatever it was, it was described by Bryant's attorney as overwhelming, and was sufficient for the prosecutors to charge him. Bryant was caught red-handed during the siege; there is no plausible doubt that Martin Bryant is the person who held off the police overnight. Whatever physical evidence may have been gathered by investigators that supports the chain of eyewitness accounts, all the way back to Martin Bryant's yellow Volvo laden with weapons and recovered at the Port Arthur parking lot, is sealed. This evidence's apparent nonexistence may indeed be consistent with a coverup, but it's also exactly what we'd expect to find in the context of a murder investigation.
Once, Bryant's attorney took some photos of him in jail during a visit, which were then confiscated and destroyed by prison authorities. This incident is often pointed to as proof that some kind of coverup is taking place, along with assertions that nobody has ever been allowed to photograph Bryant; perhaps because it might be discovered that his physical description does not match that given by eyewitnesses. This is a goofy claim. Photos and video of Martin Bryant were widely published throughout the media following the incident, and are still all over the Internet to this day. Does it really make sense that a conspiring Australian government would think it was accomplishing anything by banning photographs of Bryant? The lawyer's photographs were destroyed because cameras are not permitted inside prisons without prior permission, for obvious reasons, and he had failed to request any such permission. Again, there is no conspiracy needed to explain these events.
So why do the conspiracy theories persist? Why are some people so quick to jump on board any bandwagon that presumes the existence of a hidden malevolent power? It's yet another manifestation of the way our brains are hardwired. We want to find patterns. We want to make connections between cause and effect. When something goes bump in the night and nothing is seen, our brains want to assign the blame to a ghost. When shapes in a photograph from Mars mimic a face, our brains conjure up a Martian civilization that must have carved it. When a natural disaster happens, we look to secret government research as the culprit. And when a lone gunman murders 35 people, it's natural for our brains to imagine an evil intelligence behind what happened. Psychologists call this agency detection. The caveman who errs on the side of caution and assumes that every rustle in the grass is a saber-toothed cat is more likely to survive than the one who casually dismisses it as a harmless breath of wind.
As aggravating (or even offensive) as they might be, conspiracy theories like the Port Arthur massacre are the naturally evolved result of our brains failing on the side of caution. In this case it's wrong, and in many other cases too. But if we always assume that the Martin Bryants of this world are troubled loners acting completely on their own, evolutionary theory says that one day the saber-tooth will get us. We have to always look at the facts.
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