War on terror

Duncan Kerr.

Wise precautions or impunity for abuses?


Although there has been much concerned discussion in Australia about the events of September 11 and their aftermath, Australian society still has not fully engaged in rigorous debate about the implications of those events, including our involvement in the 'war on terrorism'. On one hand this is understandable, given the shocking nature of the events of September 11 (perhaps especially to those living in nations, like Australia, whose modern history does not include organised terrorist activity, and whose 'mainstream' population has been largely untouched by acts of politically-motivated violence). On the other hand, this is a matter of concern, given the potentially serious international and domestic consequences of both the September 11 attacks themselves and the nature of the subsequent US-led 'war on terrorism' - consequences that demand scrutiny and debate.1

'Security', 'the national interest' and 'terrorism': a content-free zone?

One potential consequence of the post-September 11 environment risks jeopardising full and frank public debate about the content and desirability of proposed domestic anti-terrorism laws. This is the risk that the blanket use of terms such as 'security', 'the national interest' and 'terrorism' will be resorted to in order to justify measures that are, at least partially, politically motivated; in the sense that they give the current government a political advantage vis-Ã -vis organisations and individuals who oppose it or its political agenda. The risk of this is greatest when this language of security and terror is used without specific justification and explanation. Such terms can become a 'content-free zone' into which almost any cause, organisation or individual can be inserted, and thereby characterised as a threat to Australia and/or its allies.

This would not be a new phenomenon in Australia - recall, for example, the anti-communist rhetoric and political measures of the Menzies era, and Australia's history of interning 'enemy aliens' living in Australia in times of war.2 During both world wars thousands of Australians of German (and in WWII Italian) decent had their lives ruined by their internment without effective legal remedy-often on the basis of dubious information provided to security agencies. Nor it is a new phenomenon elsewhere. Notorious and extreme historical examples internationally include the uses of propaganda and targeting of political opponents as security threats by ultra-fascist states such as Nazi Germany and Franco's Spain, ultra-communist states such as China during the Cultural Revolution and the Soviet Bloc under Stalin, and ultra-nationalist states such as apartheid South Africa and the emerging nations of the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 1990s.

There are worrying signs today that tolerance of the suppression of dissent is increasing. Amnesty International has expressed concern that many countries have already seized on the events of September 11 to justify action that would otherwise have been condemned. Egypt has clamped down on public gatherings and demonstrations and detained opponents without trial under emergency legislation. China has intensified its crackdown on Uighur opponents of Chinese rule in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, claiming their opponents - who they accuse of being 'separatists' - were linked with international terrorism. Malaysia is claiming the events of September 11 justify it retaining its notorious Internal Security Act. The usual allies of Amnesty International in condemning these excesses now condone them or stand mute as they undertake, or at least consider, similar actions.