The year was 2003 and the planet was gripped by fear. A shadowy terrorist organisation called
Kaos ISIS Al Qaeda was intent on global destruction, and only the plucky guys and gals of the West stood in its path.
They were dark days, friends: the first Iraq War; SARS; Delta Goodrem’s final Neighbours episodes.
To calm the nerves of an anxious populace, the Howard government issued a fridge magnet to every Australian home as part of its anti-terrorism kit, Let’s Look Out For Australia.
On this magnet was written the number for the 24-hour national security hotline, which members of the public were encouraged to call should they witness any suspicious activity.
The kit landed on the heels of the government’s Steve Liebmann-fronted “be alert, but not alarmed” TV ad (seriously… wow), which simultaneously exhorted us to go on living our “decent” way of life while remaining terrified that it would soon end lest we employ more police and persecute more foreigners.
And so it was in this world of unnecessary wars and global epidemics and fear-fomenting public awareness campaigns that I went to a home in Northgate.
The property was cordoned off by the time I arrived with the photographer. There were three marked police cars. A cluster of uniformed constables and two plain-clothes detectives milled about.
I chatted to one of the younger uniformed guys. He wouldn’t tell me much, but there had been gunshots and a vehicle had driven away from the scene. It must have been quite the commotion.
Directly across the road from the house there was a small assisted care facility. Just a handful of pokey white-brick dwellings for grey-haired oldies who no longer had the capacity to look after themselves.
One of the residents, a bony, frail thing, was standing in her tiny garden in her housecoat, staring across the road. We made eye contact and she raised a skinny arm to gesture me over.
She was shaking. Wide-eyed. Terrified. She clutched her hands to her chest. She would have been able to see and hear the whole thing from her front window.
She asked me if I knew what had happened. I told her I was a reporter and joked that I had planned to ask her the same thing.
She said, “I didn’t know if I should call the number or not.”
At first I thought she meant triple-0. But then I realised that she wasn’t just clutching her hands to her chest, she was holding something there. A talisman to protect her from the evil forces that Mr Howard and that nice Mr Liebmann from the Today show told her were out to get us.
The fridge magnet.
How do you scare an old lady? Talk about the boogeyman. Show her pictures of the boogeyman. Show them again. And again. Tell her that the boogeyman is coming to get her. Hire blandly handsome celebrities to tell her the boogeyman is threatening Our Way Of Life. Tell her she has to stop the boogeyman. That the boogeyman could strike anywhere and any time. That it’s up to her.
Then the old lady sees the boogeyman everywhere. At the shops. Behind the wheel of the taxi. Across the road from her house.
And then the old lady is scared, and shaking, and standing in her housecoat in her front yard clutching a fridge magnet and wishing her husband was still alive because then she wouldn’t be alone.