Thursday, December 04, 2008

Anti-terror laws work

Journalists and columnists frequently criticise politicians and government for their regular stuff-ups.  So allow me to applaud that rare and wonderful thing, a piece of legislation that has actually worked.  I am talking about the Australian government's anti-terror laws of 2005.

At the time, opponents warned that the laws were a road to serfdom.  Geoffrey Barker, in the Australian Financial Review, warned:  "We may be entering the twilight of liberal democracy as the spectre of the national security state looms larger and closer."  Not to be outdone, the Age's Kenneth Davidson charged that the new laws "violate the most fundamental tenets of the rule of law" so much so that "politicians, not terrorists, are the biggest threat to Australian democracy today".

Cartoonists and letter-writers depicted the Australian government as a new Third Reich.  Some drew analogies with South Africa under Apartheid, while so-called civil libertarians complained about scaremongering politicians exaggerating the Islamist threat to justify counter-terrorist measures.  The editors of Arena, Dissent, Meanjin and Overland, among other left-wing journals, wrote to the Age arguing that the new laws "may readily be used to stymie free and open debate".  The prolific playwright Stephen Sewell wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald warning that "every Australian" faces "the prospect of being disappeared".  (At last count, Mr Swell is still alive.)  All this, before the details of the proposed legislation were even made public.

Three years later, and notwithstanding the bungled case against Indian doctor Mohammed Haneef who was falsely accused of aiding terrorists in the June 2007 Glasgow bombing, Australia remains a free and democratic society that has not suffered an attack on home soil.  Which raises the question:  were the aforementioned concerns really justified?  Were John Howard's anti-terror laws -- backed, remember, by the opposition Labor party, all six state Labor premiers as well as more than 70 per cent of the community -- so unnecessary and so Draconian?

Surely not.  In the aftermath of the London Underground and bus bombings of July 2005, Australians became more alert to the threat of homegrown terror:  acts of evil perpetuated against tolerant Western nations by those who have been nurtured within them, but who had turned against their liberal values after brainwashing by radical religious ideologues.

True, some measures were hardline, and these included control orders to fit terror suspects with tracking devices for up to 12 months;  and detaining suspects for up to 48 hours without charge.  (In contrast, British and French authorities can detain and question people for 28 days and three years respectively.)  Still, far from destroying Australia's democratic rights, the laws have been a limited defence against a specific and very real threat.

The self-appointed liberty lobby warned that the threat used to justify the laws had been exaggerated.  This, from the same crowd who complained that Australia's role in the Iraq war had increased its likelihood of being a terrorist target.  Such contradictions aside, the seriousness of the terror threat to Australia was clear.

During the very November week of the laws' passage through parliament, the nation's intelligence agency publicly warned of the existence of a homegrown terror threat.  Subsequently, 17 men were arrested in Sydney and Melbourne and charged with membership of a terrorist organisation and of planning attacks within Australia.  In September, the nation's biggest terrorism trial ended with the conviction of seven men of belonging to a terrorist cell.

Although there has yet to be an attack on our home soil, Australians had already been among the victims of numerous terrorist atrocities abroad -- from New York in September 2001, Bali in 2002 and Istanbul in 2003 to London in July 2005, Bali (again) in October 2005 and Mumbai last week.

The danger has also been brought home in other ways.  Authorities have discovered at least four locals with terrorist intent (Jack Roche, Willie Brigitte, Faheem Khalid Lodhi and Muslim cleric Abdul Benbrika, the ringleader of the aforementioned terrorist group recently convicted).  Jermaah Islamiyah, al-Qa'eda's Asian affiliate, has had terror cells in Australia.  Then there has been the inflammatory anti-Western and pro-bin Laden rhetoric from Muslim clerics in Sydney and Melbourne.  Simply put, a devastating suicide bombing in peak-hour Sydney or Melbourne has been a very real possibility.

Meanwhile, some Islamic leaders claimed the laws would victimise Muslims.  Community spokesman Chaaban Omran said:  "If you do say something in support of an oppressed people and you sympathise with them, then you could be misconstrued as having incited hatred."  But how many ways are there to construe, for example, the words in a text sold from a radical mosque in Melbourne:  "The Jew or Christian who insults the prophet should be killed"?  Surely there is a big difference between such comments and those made "in support of an oppressed people".  Attempts, in the security climate at the time, to muddy the difference between the normal, vigorous debates that occur in a liberal democratic society and incitements to hatred and violence were surely wrong and unhelpful.

As for the claim that the laws would victimise Muslims, bear in mind that the legislation did not mention any ethnic or religious minority.  If they did target any minority, the laws would be anathema to the broad cross-section of Australians whose commitment to civil liberties runs deep.  The laws were about those who incite and participate in terrorist atrocities.  If the Muslim community stood in any special relationship to the laws, it is for the reason conceded by some Muslim leaders following the London bombings:  some immigrant Muslim communities, albeit small, had allowed themselves to become infiltrated by radicals.  It is those radical elements, not the Australian government's anti-terror laws, that were utterly at odds with tolerant multi-racial and multi-ethnic values.

Which brings me to the Mumbai terrorist attacks last week.  They are a reminder that the war on terror is far from won.  But they're also a reminder that democracies with weak anti-terror defences are cruising for a bruising.  Unlike Australia's intelligence units, India's counter-terrorism facilities are understaffed and lack resources.  Its anti-terror legal system is weak;  there is, for example, no preventive detention law.  Last week's attacks should galvanise Indians to do a better job in countering the terror threat at the local level.  They could learn a lot from the Australian experience.


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