The idea of ‘national security’ arises from the ‘social contract’ referred to by political philosophers. The concept is that the people gave the power to enforce rules and punishments to their leaders, whether monarchs or elected governments, in return for ‘protection’. Otherwise, in going about our daily business we would also have to build into our day the need to protect ourselves and our families and property from any threats that may emerge.
So in a functioning society, we say I will largely divest myself of my right to defend myself and grant that power to our leaders, leaving me free to go about my business without those additional security concerns. The quid pro quo
is that the government defends my other rights and my property, as well as my security. (I won’t go into the issue of protection of property as that is the dominant theme of neo-liberals and, in my view, is somewhat contentious for reasons that would make this piece two or three times as long.)
There are two aspects to protection: one from external threats and one from internal threats. As I recall, in international relations, one trait that was used in defining a nation state was its capacity to protect itself and defend its borders. Hence the need for a standing army or these days also a navy and an air force. And ever since the Middle Ages, there have also been spies and intelligence services as a means of gaining advance warning of potential threats and what one’s enemies may be up to. Note, however, that these are meant to protect us from external
For internal threats the protection comes primarily from the police which also has a key role in protecting our rights — and, in fact, the main internal threats do relate to our rights. Our rights link to the basic John Stuart Mill tenet that freedom is about ‘pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to attain it’. Thus we allow our governments to create rules that protect that freedom and, importantly, also stop us from impinging upon the freedom of others. Stealing, assault and fraud, for example, each deprive someone else of their rights and so are subject to punishment by the rules we create. That is where the police and the courts come in. We have many freedoms or rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement which we consider important to our everyday lives (even if we sometimes take them for granted). Franklin D Roosevelt also spoke of freedom from want and freedom from fear — two that I think we do not hear enough about.
Of course, over time, societies can change their emphasis on some of these rights, considering one more important than another, and hence also change the rules that support or enforce them. And in times of genuine external threat, such as during World War II, we may accept the need to forego some of our freedoms in the name of national security.
So we come to the Abbott government’s view of national security.
Firstly, the so-called ‘boat people’. Are 50 or 100 people in a leaky wooden boat an external threat to our national security? I doubt any reasonable person would say so but Abbott dresses the Australian response to the ‘boat people’ in security terms. He created a secret operation (‘operation’ being used as military jargon) and refuses to provide any details because these are ‘operational’ or military or intelligence matters. That may be justified in time of war when a heavily armed invasion fleet is menacing the country but does not appear so when we are talking about boat loads of refugees.
Are we merely protecting our borders? That is a safer argument to make, at least up to a point. Yes, the boat people may be breaching our borders but only if they come within 12 nautical miles (22km) of our coastline (including off-shore islands). Beyond that, they are in international waters and should be free to move as they wish. They may come within our 200 nautical mile (370km) ‘economic zone’ but that applies only to economic activities such as fishing and also restricts the right of other nations to search for or exploit other natural resources within that zone — I don’t think the boat people are there searching for oil so that doesn’t apply. So the argument must be that our ‘intelligence’ suggests that these boats will breach our borders if they are not stopped in international waters — which, on the surface, is a valid argument.
The UN convention on refugees, however, does give people the right to breach borders in certain circumstances — when we recognise that their own government is failing to protect them and their rights. We have processes to assess such people to distinguish ‘genuine’ refugees from economic migrants who may simply be trying to skirt the immigration programs that most countries have.
So can Abbott justify that a major military-style operation is necessary to stop ‘breaches of our border’? Certainly not in a philosophic sense. It was Howard who said ‘we will decide who comes to our country and the circumstances in which they come’ and Abbott has basically continued that approach. It is ‘son of the White Australia policy’ and plays on the same fear of being over-run by hordes of ‘Orientals’, now refugees, who may bring with them a different life-style. Abbott ramps up those fears in the populace by exaggerating the threat to one akin to a military invasion, requiring military responses and the language of national security — all in the name of stopping a few leaky boats.
Logic would suggest that controlling the flow of refugees actually requires actions to manage the flow, and steps to reduce the flow, at their source
. That would require assisting in the processing of refugees in refugee camps (as was done by the Fraser government for Vietnamese refugees) and providing aid that may improve the circumstances in countries of origin, so diminishing the need for people to leave. We are doing nothing on the first and actually cutting our international aid on the second. Therefore, it can only be a political decision to ignore measures that may reduce the problem at its source and instead focus on creating a situation
where our government can react with overwhelming power on the basis of national security — it would not suit its political agenda to take pro-active measures. It also follows that this is only a ‘border security’ issue because the government chooses to make it so and it is the proverbial sledge hammer to deal with a mosquito.
Then we have the internal and external threat of ‘terrorism’. There is no doubt that this is a real threat but how great a threat to Australia and how far should we go in dealing with it?
Genuine terrorism is based on the premise that by creating terror and fear in a population, its government will be forced to change its policies in a way that meets at least some of the political objectives of the terrorists. Thus the IRA conducted a ‘bombing campaign’ on mainland Britain in an effort to change the British government’s policy on Ireland (this was done twice, once in the 1940‒50s and again in the 1970s). For a long time, the British government treated captured IRA members as criminals: they were tried under normal criminal law. It was the IRA itself that campaigned for its members to be treated as political prisoners or prisoners of war. It was an approach that refused to acknowledge publicly the politics of the situation and, as far as it went, down-played the threat (and the fear) by treating the acts as mere acts of criminality.
What terrorist threat does Australia actually face? The biggest threat at the moment appears to be the possibility of ‘lone wolf’ attacks inspired by radical Islamic and IS propaganda. There was the stabbing of the two police officers in Melbourne and a small number of threats that have allegedly been stopped before being carried out.
Abbott likes to refer to Monis at the Lindt Café siege as an example of terrorism reaching our shores despite evidence suggesting that Monis was mentally unstable and an attention-seeker wanting to link himself to IS. Reports emerging from the inquest indicate that there is no evidence of him ever having been in contact with any terrorist group and, when even a bikie gang found him ‘weird’, you do have to have some doubts that he was a genuine terrorist with political motives.
While we may find any single event terrible, we must keep a sense of perspective. We have had mass murderers with no political intent, such as Martin Bryant, and they do not generate the same degree of fear. We may be shocked but we perceive such events as a ‘one-off’, even if, as in the US, they occur on a regular basis. Terrorists, on the other hand, are trying to convince us that they are capable of carrying out their attacks again and again. If we perceive some events as worse because we also perceive them as ‘terrorist’ events, then the terrorists are winning the battle for our minds.
It was George W Bush who declared the ‘war on terror’ after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers. As horrific as that event was, taking the US to ‘war’ was giving Al Qaeda a status beyond its real power. Abbott is now doing the same in Australia, describing IS as a ‘death cult’ which really, as Abdul-Rehman Malik who runs an outreach group for young Muslims said, is accepting the IS propaganda
and giving it an inflated status:
The propagandists of the Islamic State, when they hear themselves referred to as a death cult hell-bent on global domination, are patting themselves on the back because you know what? You’ve bought in to their narrative.
We seem to be adopting the former British approach but only in part. We tend to ignore the politics of radical Islam but we accept its proponents as political enemies whom we must engage in war. Can anyone else see the inconsistency in that? War is sometimes said to be an outcome of the failure of diplomacy but if we refuse to recognise the political elements of our enemy, which rules out diplomacy, and don’t treat them merely as criminals, then war becomes the only recourse — as it seems to be now. (There is little doubt IS is playing a similar game.)
In the case of IS, war may be justified because it does have some components of a ‘state’ in the areas it occupies and does see itself as forming an Islamic government of a caliphate. But as a ‘state’ it is not yet a direct threat to Australia. We can, if we so choose, be involved in supporting other states who are threatened by it: so there can logically be some justification for our current involvement in Iraq — it is a political or diplomatic decision to support another state.
Abbott, and Howard before him following 9/11, have used this so-called threat to our national security to curtail our rights. These laws are justified on the basis of our fear of terrorism and the need to protect us. The extent of that protection is driven by the intensity of the fear but, as suggested above, the level of fear being expressed by the government seems to outweigh the real extent of the danger.
that have been introduced to address ‘terrorism’:
- ASIO can detain people for up to seven days and it is illegal to speak of that detention afterwards. You can be detained merely for questioning about your possible knowledge of an event even if you were not involved and you may not be told why you were detained. The warrant for your detention is decided merely on security advice without your presence and with no opportunity to challenge it. It sails very close to arbitrary detention.
- ASIO has the power to monitor computers but that is now defined as including a network. At its broadest it means the internet can be treated as a single network: it is more likely to relate to smaller networks but that may still capture the computers of many people who are not directly under investigation. It also has the power to alter and delete material from those computers and you will not be told.
- Journalists cannot report ASIO activities that involve Special Intelligence Operations (SIOs) but there is nothing to allow identification of which ASIO operations are SIOs and which just normal activities. Effectively, journalists are barred from reporting on ASIO with the threat of 10 year gaol sentences.
- There are ‘control orders’ that can limit a person’s movements and who they can meet and again these can be decided without any other parties being present or able to challenge the decision. They can be likened to bail conditions except that the person has not been charged and may never be tried.
- There are also travel bans under which it is an offence, also carrying a term of up to 10 years imprisonment, to be in areas ‘declared’ by the Foreign Minister as areas where terrorist organisations are operating. There are exclusions for legitimate purposes, such as providing humanitarian aid, but the presumption of innocence is reversed: the onus is on the individual to prove they were there for a legitimate purpose, and prove it was the sole purpose for their presence.
- We also have laws that people can be charged for ‘planning a terrorist act’. It takes us into dangerous territory. There is a difference between planning an action and being about to carry it out (which is when police often act if they have advance intelligence). Also, what constitutes a ‘terrorist act’ is not clearly defined, so how far could this law go?
Some of our traditional rights that are affected by these new laws include freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right to a fair trial, procedural fairness and judicial review. The danger is not just from the current laws (which we may think won’t affect many people) but the precedent they set. We must always be vigilant of our rights and remember that the elected Nazi government began with small limitations to freedom in the name of maintaining social stability.
These approaches are also tearing up the ‘social contract’. Our national security actually depends on the social contract — a binding trust between the government and the people. If governments ignore their part of the bargain by undermining the rights they are meant to protect, then people may begin to question the value of the social contract and the role of government. Isn’t that exactly what the terrorists want us to do
Finally, I return to Roosevelt’s ‘freedom from fear’. That is one of the rights that is supported by government when it provides for our protection. When, however, it is the government itself that is generating fear, and using that fear to weaken our rights and renegue on its side of the social contract, isn’t it actually the Abbott government that is threatening our national security? Isn’t it actually the Abbott government that is behaving like a terrorist organisation by creating fear to achieve its political objectives?
What do you think?
Are ‘terrorists’ just common criminals on steroids used to promote governments’ ‘law and order’ platforms? Why are asylum seekers labelled with the same description? With the increase in security measures - where are the corresponding increases in safety, or any scrutiny, checks and balances to ensure that the additional powers are used wisely or correctly? Ken’s piece is timely and relevant given the current discussion of the ‘race’ of ’terrorists’.
Next week Ken continues the national security and terrorism theme when he discusses the young Australian suicide bomber Jake Bilardi but comes to a very different conclusion in his piece ‘A failure of the Left’.