The performance of the Premiers at the recent Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting to hammer out new terror laws had more than a hint of the Neville Chamberlain School of Political Negotiation about it. Going in, the Premiers were talking tough. None were about to sign away Australia’s freedoms in the blink of an eye. Whatever the Prime Minister and the Attorney General showed them must have scared them witless. Each one emerged with their tail between their legs, supporting the further expansion of the laws. All that was missing was the Premiers waving the paperwork in the air declaring that they’d secured freedom in our time.
The only whimper of dissent was Peter Beattie’s admission that the laws were ‘draconian’, which is true enough — but only so long as it’s assumed that the new laws are intended to prevent terrorism. If their aim is to further instill fear into an already rattled electorate, then they make perfect sense.
The proposed legislation is unlikely to have any discernible effect in preventing terrorism. Measures to combat the plotting of murder and mayhem, both against individuals and groups — which is, after all, what terrorism is — have been in force for some time now.
Furthermore, the experiences of societies that have lived with the spectre of terrorism and successfully contained it suggest that the most effective law enforcement tool against it is basic police work. Tagging and tracking suspects, imprisoning the presumed innocent and preventing people from saying unkind things about their leaders might make for exciting and bold press briefings but such measures are mostly irrelevant to the business of combating terrorism.
The new laws are the work of what sociologist Frank Furedi refers to as the ‘entrepreneurs of fear’ — politicians and others who benefit from instilling fear in the citizenry. Not only is the threat of terror so awful that law enforcement agencies need extraordinary powers to combat it, but the threat is so terrible that it can’t even be named.
The likely targets of the new laws became apparent in the days prior to the COAG meeting, when the Australian government broke new ground in the war on terror by imprisoning and then deporting peace activist Scott Parkin, lest his words of dissent incite terrorist activities. So dire was the threat posed by Mr Parkin that the Government refused to supply reasons for his detention and deportation. Attorney General Phillip Ruddock did concede that Parkin hadn’t committed a crime, giving the impression that his very presence on the continent is a threat.
For its part, federal Labor continued to give new and interesting meanings to the word ‘opposition’ by backing the government’s position. Speaking on the ABC’s Insiders program, Kim Beazley refused to elaborate on the security briefing regarding Parkin, claiming that concerns of national security are above party politics.
In a way Beazley is quite right: creating shadowy fears and then playing them up is above politics, in the sense that both major parties are agreed on its political utility. Such consensus is not confined to Australia. At the recent British Labour Party conference, for example, 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang was deemed such a threat to the proceedings — he yelled ‘That’s a lie and you know it’ during a speech by Jack Straw defending the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war — that he was escorted from the building and had his pass confiscated under the Blair government’s Terrorism Act. While Wolfgang was later permitted to re-enter the conference and was given apologies from Blair and other Cabinet ministers, the episode is indicative of a climate in which fears are being blown out of proportion for political ends.
None of this is to suggest that the threat of terrorism is not real, or that the fears associated with it don’t have some basis in reality. The outrages of Bali, London, Madrid, New York and Washington are proof of that fact. But such fears have been cultivated to the point where they bear no relation to the actual likelihood of being the target of an attack. The pervasiveness of fear has been helped along by a culture that exalts the idea that subjectivity can be self-assembled as an act of individual will, rather than a process embedded within communal forms of life. Lacking any deep grounding in communal context, the boundaries that might offer feedback about prudent fears have weakened. Like contemporary subjectivity itself, fear is open-ended and fluid.
Insisting on individual rights in such situations is only a partial response to this culture. Some expressions — libertarian criticisms of the new laws, for example — are too easily drawn back into an individualised account of subjectivity. A lasting solution will come from a more forthright discussion of the risks of terror and trusting that communities possess enough good sense not to jump at every passing shadow.
While fear-mongering might make great political capital in the short-term, how long before the purveyors of fear are consumed by a creature of their own making? And how many freedoms will be forfeited and have to be won back in the process?