The massacre scene was about as likely as a Scottish primary school. A sleepy, half-restored historic site 100km south-east of Hobart. Camera-toting tourists meandering quietly through the bushfire-blackened ruins of convict history. A gunman with an unknown grudge.
On a seemingly usual Sunday -- Port Arthur's busiest day -- an angry young man drives into the town in his VW, a surfboard on the roof-racks. He casually comments to a tourist that it's a crowd of "WASPs" today -- you know, not too many "Japs" around. It hardly serves as a warning.
Then, at about 1.30pm, the young man enters the Broad Arrow Cafe and pulls a high-powered rifle from a tennis bag, and begins shooting at adults and children. He then movees into the car park, setting fire to several cars, possibly with people inside them. He then leaves the site, shooting people as they arrive at the toll booth. By now 12 people are dead.
His next stop is the Fox and Hounds Hotel, where he shoots several people before moving up the road to the Seascape lodge, where he takes hostages at about 3.30pm.
He fires at helicopters taking his victims to hospital and exchanges fire with the police surrounding his position.
By now at least 32 people are dead and more than 18 wounded.
By late afternoon, a mortuary truck moves into the Port Arthur township to pick up the dead.
The motive for this carnage is unknown, but by week's end dozens of psychologists, criminologists and other related experts will have no doubt aired their theories.
Port Arthur -- with its convict leg-irons and solitary confinement cells -- will be known for brutality of another kind. It will join Strathfield in Sydney, and Queen Street and Hoddle Street in Melbourne among the sites of Australia's senseless mass killings, where misunderstood men unleashed their rage in the most macabre way imaginable.
The world's attention turned only last month to the tiny Scottish town of Dunblane, where Thomas Hamilton, a 43-year-old failed youth leader took his frustration to the local primary school gymnasium and massacred 16 five and six-year-olds and their teacher. Two other teachers and 12 more children were wounded -- three critically -- before the killer turned the gun to his own head. Said the school's headmaster, Ron Taylor: "Evil visited us today. We don't understand it, and I guess we never will."
The reasons for all these murders are senseless to all but the killer -- who is almost invariably lonely, embittered and out of sorts with the world.
The trigger can be as simple as a teasing remark.
On August 30, 1990, Paul Anthony Evers awoke at about 8.30am to the taunts of his neighbour: "You bludger. You dole bludger." It was enough to send him over the edge. Arming himself with a Bentley 12-gauge pumpa-action shotgun, Evers confronted 60-year-old Thomas Cullin in the housing commission high-rise in Sydney's inner-city Surry Hills, shooting him dead through the screen door of his unit. Four others were killed in the rampage that followed, including Ever's half-sister, who had also been his lover, Michelle Coleman, 24.
Evers blamed his neighbour's taunts but psychiatrists, who labelled him psychotic, said he was enraged because Coleman was leaving him. His father recounted a life of rejection by the women in his life -- his natural mother, who left him when he was three, his stepmother and finally his half-sister. Evers was found guilty of manslaughter, rather than murder, due to diminished responsibilty.
The precipitating factors are unknown, but criminologists have identified certain trends among mass murderers; they are almost exclusively male; tend to be ex-military; kill strangers; almost always use guns; have a history of violence in more than 30 per cent of cases; feel strong hatred for certain people, especially ethnic minorities; are killed by police in 50 per cent of cases; and their rampages are almost always intentional suicide.
Julian Knight, who killed seven people and injured 19 others in the Hoddle Street massacre in 1987, had most of the hallmarks of the arche-typal mass murderer. Obsessed with combat and killing, the 19-year-old had been thrown out of Duntroon after stabbing another army cadet. Knight had a history of parental rejection, was unemployed and had just been dumped by his girlfriend. On August 9, 1987, his adoptive mother's birthday, Knight took a pump-action shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle and an M14, and sprayed gunfire indiscriminately at motorists on one of Melbourne's busiest roads. In the 40-minute shooting spree, the sniper killed four men and three women. Knight had been saving one bullet for himself, but he misplaced it. He surrendered and went to prison. He said he had always wanted to know what it was like to kill someone.
Melbourne was still mourning the Hoddle Street victims when, four months later, Frank Vitkovic went down in history as Australia's then-worst mass murderer. He laughed hysterically as he executed eight people in a city office building. Running through an Australia Post office, he shot anyone in his path. Terrorising staff on the 11th and 12th floors of 191 Queen Street, the former law student made his grievances clear as he screamed: "You're all scum. You all give me the shits. Well, who's laughing now? What's the point of life when nobody loves you? I'm going to take you all with me."
The intelligent, well-mannered man coldly shot his victims at close range, then jumped out of an 11th floor window. His actions, he believed, were morally justified -- in his diaries he vowed to God that he would "punish these evil, vicious, cruel, scum people ... I know I am ready for the mission".
At the time it became Australia's worst ever mass murder. But Tasmanian Police Commissioner John Johnson said yesterday previous mass shootings in Australia would "pale into insignifance when you look at what's happened in Tasmania".
The most comparable mass murder is probably the Rambo-style killing spree in a desolate New Zealand town in November 1990. During a 23-hour shooting orgy, a gunman wielding a high-powered rifle killed 13 people at the coastal settlement of Aramoana. After an argument with a neighbour, David Malcolm Gray shot the man and his three daughters, set fire to their family house, then shot seven other people in the street outside. He crossed the road and shot dead the two people hiding inside a house. He killed a policeman and was finally cornered after a 20-hour siege. Wearing homemade camouflage gear, Gray came out shooting and shouting: "Come on, kill me, you bastards, kill me." They did.
In the investigations that followed, it was revealed that Gray was a "strange" lanky character who was teased at school and had never had a successful relationship with a woman. Novels about war, terrorism, militarism or espionage were scattered all over his house. Bill Brosnan -- a Dunedin bookshope owner who was one of the few who had spoken to Gray -- said he had "a cold look in his eye" and had taken to hiding behind a balaclava, regardless of the weather. Gray, who felt everyone hated him, had told Brosnan he was suffering at the hands of a society which was "out to get the people on the lower rungs". In hindsight, it hardly suprising that an arsenal of sem-automatic weapons were building up in his shack.
In 1991, the horror of mass murder struck an outer suburban Sydney shopping centre. On August 17, Wade Frankum, a 33-year-old taxi driver, set out for Strathfield Plaza with an imported 7.62mm SKS self-loading assualt rifle in his bag and a machete concealed under his jacket. After downing four coffees in an hour at the Coffee Pot cafe, he stabbed a 15-year-old girl, leaving the machete in her body, then shot at diners around him before moving through the centre firing indiscriminately until the murder tally reached seven. "He was just calmly standing," said one witness. "Fired the first round, another two or three rounds, and then just turned around calmly and pointed the gun into the kitchen -- bang -- and then continued." Police found 50 cartridges after the assault. He flagged down a motorist in the the car park, then asked to be let out of the car. He uttered his last words -- "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry" -- then shot himself, sobbing.
Frankum's father had died some years earlier and his mother had gassed herself 12 months before in the family car, which he continued to drive. Frankum's neighbours described him as "just a kind regular guy, friendly but quiet", a loner. "He would spend the whole day in the house and never go out apart from down to the local shop to buy milk and cigarettes, and then he would go out at night to drive his taxi," said one.
Random violence, it seems, has never been isolated to the likes of New York or Johannesburg. Evil can find its way into the most innnocent of places. Like a tourist spot in Tasmania.
[images: "Visited by evil: The gunman took hostages in the Seascape guest house, top left, after shooting his second wave of victims at the Fox and Hounds Hotel, above"
A stretcher wheeled along the grass by three medics and two volunteers (20x18) ]