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Terrorism at home: The law cannot save us

Terrorism at home: The law cannot save us

I picked up my tickets for tomorrow's AFL Grand Final the other day. My team, the Sydney Swans, is playing and I should be excited to be going. Instead, I have been infected by the unease gripping Melbourne. I ask myself, am I taking a risk by attending the game? 

We are told by our political leaders we should continue to live our lives as normal, but since Tuesday night's shooting of the teenager who – allegedly spurred on by Islamic State propaganda – stabbed two policemen outside a police station in Melbourne's south-east, the threat of domestic terrorism feels very close indeed.

Before 11 September 2001, Australians had little experience of terrorism, and it was reflected in our laws. George Williams has written that before 9/11, only the Northern Territory had laws relating to terrorism.

Things feel a bit different now. In recent months we have witnessed the barbarism of the beheadings of Western journalists by Islamic State operatives in the Middle East. These reporters were very brave individuals who at great risk brought us reports from the conflicts in Syria and northern Iraq, the crucible of the operations of the fanatical terrorist sect. But we know terrorism can be random, and that you don't have to travel to dangerous places to become its victim.

The internet has made it easier for terrorists to spread their message and recruit. It has also made it easier for them to spread fear, to intrude on our lives and work their way into our daily consciousness, making us question our actions, our security, the very way we go about our business. Our politicians are responding. Australia has joined military efforts overseas, while at home policy makers are addressing gaps in Australia's domestic security apparatus, including in our laws.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind as our political leaders formulate their responses. [fold]

The first regards the legislative response, and the risks associated with knee-jerk law-making in times of heightened fear. Australia's domestic counter-terrorism legislative output after 9/11 was larger than countries facing much greater threats and we know that many of those laws were never used. More laws, alone, will not make us safer. Bret Walker, the former independent national security legislation monitor, warned in The Guardian this week that 'The problem is that people think that passing laws makes us safer. Well not unless the laws are necessary because we lacked power to keep us safe.' 

I am not arguing that we don't need further laws covering different aspects of terrorism, particularly ones relating to Australians traveling to the Middle East to join Islamic State. But history has taught us that counter-terrorism laws with the built-in potential for abuse can lead to grave injustices and make a country's social problems worse.

Concerns have been raised about a number of elements in Australia's proposed terror laws. Examples include the prosecutions of journalists for reporting security operations even when there is a public interest in doing so; the immunity from prosecution for uses of force by ASIO officers; and the expansion of highly secretive preventative detention laws where the original need for such laws is questioned by criminal law experts.

Northern Ireland is the paradigm case for how executive overreach in counter-terrorism laws and policy can go wrong. Hundreds of Catholic nationalists, many of them innocent, were interned under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, which permitted detention without charge or trial. They were subject to a range of mistreatment, including what today would be regarded as torture. The internment policies were widely viewed in hindsight as a failure, having led to the alienation of the Catholic population and the escalation of violence.

Which brings me to my second point. This is not a time to be alienating  (or alienating further) particular segments of our society. Laws are an important but ultimately limited response to a problem which has at its core the radicalisation of lost, isolated, angry young Muslim Australian men. As a society we cannot afford to create further cause for feelings of disenfranchisement or marginalisation. We must strengthen our liberal democratic resolve to nurture a polity in which difference (ethnic or religious or otherwise) is respected and tolerated. We do not want to be a society in which women wearing hijabs or burqas are spat upon

We look to our political and community leaders here to come up with some thoughtful long-terms policies and programs to deal with disaffected youths who feel they are not fitting in or are not fully accepted by their country. Having said that, we also need local Muslim leaders to step up and condemn unambiguously the behaviour of the fringe minority who want to do harm to 'disbelieving' Australians, as Islamic State leaders are inciting them to do. 

Finally, we must confront the reality that we do not have all the answers. Some of these problems need to be addressed by the Arab and Muslim world. 

Thomas Friedman in The New York Times wrote this week about the idea that the rise of the Islamic State is triggering long overdue soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about 'how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst'. He referenced a thought-provoking piece by the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, Hisham Melhem, that what is actually going on here is the chaos of an 'entire civilisation that has broken down', that the Arab world today is more violent, fragmented and beset by extremism than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Melhem argues that no one theory can explain what has gone wrong in the Arab world in the last century, and why more recently the promise of the Arab Spring has given way to civil wars and the 'tapestry of horrors in Syria and Iraq'. 

It is a compelling articulation of the problem and reinforces the idea that today's terrorist threat goes well beyond our abilities to fix. There is some comfort to be had in the fact that Western leaders seem to have recognised this, and that for a longer term solution the engagement of regional powers, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, is critical.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Corey Oakley.

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