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Terrorism: Tone matters

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COMMENTS

1 March 2010 11:18

The tone of Australia's discussion of jihadist terrorism has altered noticeably, yet the policy responses and the threat warnings seem little changed. The dissonance of policy setting versus verbal temperature runs through the Counter-Terrorism White Paper and much of the commentary it generated.

Kevin Rudd certainly sounds gloomy enough when he warns that terrorism has become a 'permanent' Australian worry. The Prime Minister takes the idea from the central claim of the Paper: 'The threat of terrorism to Australia is real and enduring. It has become a persistent and permanent feature of Australia's security environment.'

Whatever its value as analysis, this doesn't rate very high on the Alarm-O-Meter when compared with government efforts at the time of the previous Terrorism White Paper in 2004. The shift in tone becomes clear by comparing the atmospherics around the 2004 and 2010 Papers.

Even the titles start from different places. Six years ago, the Howard Government headline for its paper was 'Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia.' This time it becomes, 'Counter-Terrorism White Paper: Securing Australia — Protecting our Community'. (Perhaps doubling the length of the title is merely a sign of how things are done in the Rudd era.)

The Howard-era title was about confronting a threat from outside that was perceived as alien, almost inhuman. The Rudd-era title looks inward.

The change is partly about expectation. Six years ago, Canberra judged that a terrorist attack on Australian soil was only a matter of time. That sense of looming, even inevitable violence has faded. America has not seen a repeat of the horrors of September 11, 2001. The first strike on Australia has not arrived.

The threat may be permanent, as claimed, but that can also mean it will be a long time getting here. So the discussion is no longer as apoplectic (or even apocalyptic). To see the shift, look at two speeches by Alexander Downer in 2004, in April and as he launched the White Paper in July.

Australia, Downer said, had entered 'a struggle to the death over values'. The enemy, al Qaeda, was primitive and triumphalist: 'Their precise goals and ideologies are so extreme — and their methods are so evil — that it is difficult for us to understand them.' The phrase that lingered was the Downer description of fundamentalist Islamic extremist terrorists as 'Islamo-fascists'.

The Rudd version has nothing that goes anywhere near 'Islamo-fascists'. The change in language is because the enemy no longer seems so unknowable. For Australia, the potential jihadist may live only a couple of suburbs away. Or, as the Rudd White Paper expresses the challenge, the terrorist threat could come 'from people born or raised in Australia, who have become influenced by the violent jihadist message'.

The best guide to why the tone had to change is not the Rudd White Paper, but a masterful analysis a couple of years ago from Waleed Aly on the rapid evolution of the terror threat, linking international policy to domestic radicalisation: 'More and more, terrorist are amateurs. They may be relatively incompetent, but they are also unlikely to be part of a network. Such people are not recruited — they recruit themselves.'

Railing against primitive Islamo-fascists is not much use if the dialogue that really matters has to take place within the Australian community. For that discussion, tone matters.

Photo by Flickr user cromacom, used under a Creative Commons license.

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