Turnbull’s Response to Terror in Brussels

1 Apr 2016

The general response to the terror events in Belgium has been substantial in one sense but completely typical in another: typical in its orientation towards security issues, with militaristic tendencies. The urgent need to act and prevent terror dominates debate. This highly emotional ‘debate’ can only take the terrorists (in this case Islamic State) as given and ask how to better deal with these ‘givens’. At the level of emotion this makes some sense. It reflects the centrality of the need to make everyday life secure for any society. But it tends to make the situation worse over time because terror is not a natural catastrophe; it’s not like an earthquake. It needs deep and probing thought and this won’t happen if social and cultural imagination is excluded. Any advance in dealing with the dilemmas presented by terror requires that we go behind the ‘givens’ of the present.

Malcolm Turnbull’s response to terror in Brussels is of the same order. It is complicated by his need to differentiate himself from Tony Abbott while stepping into Abbott’s favourite field of security. Basically, Turnbull is hoping to present himself as a man of action but different to his predecessor. He is more reasoning, especially in tone. And the public acceptance of this aspect of Turnbull is his present strength.

Nevertheless he is going down a dangerous road, the consequences of which it may be difficult to escape from over time. Turnbull has already found that calling an election—especially a dramatic one—is a bit like announcing going to war. Effectively the call puts squabbling, but also nuance, aside, in favour of unity and determination. And now Turnbull is seeking to take this further with a ‘strong’ security statement. One only has to remember the ‘children overboard’ affair engineered by John Howard to see how stepping outside of everyday political life into another compelling narrative can work wonders to marshal the troops, at least in some circumstances. While the outrageous and untruthful ‘children overboard’ declaration worked for Howard, the equally outrageous manipulation in the Intervention into Aboriginal communities failed miserably in its object of getting him re-elected. In Turnbull’s case the underlying seething discontent, division and corruption in the Liberal Party alone means that it is an open question as to whether this narrative will work.

But we do need to examine the rational element of Turnbull’s argument if we are to go behind the givens of the terror debate. In his view we can best handle terrorism with strong borders, good security and effective social integration. All these elements, he says, are lacking in Europe. The EU cannot maintain external borders with united security agencies across Europe, while it has also neglected social integration. Among other things, essentially like Abbott, his position takes the terrorists as an existing fact.

In this view terrorists just appear and organise: all we can do is defend ourselves against them. We need good policy over time on social integration and, apart from this, strong security institutions. This is a war debate, or a debate by a society not wanting to think too much about relations with other cultures or institutional development. It is a debate constructed to win an election rather than seriously take hold of what is happening.

There are historical and contemporary reasons behind terror phenomena. While reasons cannot justify terror they can help us think about how terrorists emerge.

We need go no further than the history of colonialism between the West and the ‘East’ to see how crucially this both reflects and issues in deep cultural assumptions about the inferior worth of non-Westerners—those who have not taken on board the exceptionalism of the West. This attitude, shared culturally, produces widespread resentments—often suppressed—that support ongoing, festering resistance.  Especially as the West loses its economic superiority, stage by stage, there is much reflexive thought and practice needed if these attitudes are to be overcome.

While historical conditions are often a background condition of a terror response, contemporary conditions are usually in the foreground. While few people turn to terror, if the conditions of life are becoming stressed to the point of being unbearable they are an underlying trigger for some.

All the political focus on security today ignores how the underlying conditions of life have become increasingly insecure and anxiety-provoking. And this, predominantly, has not been caused by terror events. Indeed, it is in the main caused by ‘normal’ development. Global (neoliberal) markets (and capital) produce insecurity because they attack the local conditions of life (family and community) and economy. Because these markets are centred on the possibilities generated by the intellectual revolution of high-tech, they not only undermine local institutions in favour of global institutions, they also move towards the 80/20 society, in which most people will not have employment.

Malcolm Turnbull should not be comfortable that Australia is firmly socially integrated. It is the very innovative-disruptive processes he so loudly proclaims as the way forward for Australia that lie behind social dis-order and the rise of global terror, and these are early days. And for peoples suffering like those in Syria or the climate-affected and poverty-stricken areas of Africa, Asia and Europe, such strategies offer no hope. And no hope is a dangerous experience….

Under these influences even well-developed categorical distinctions between economic refugees and asylum seekers begin to break down because the global revolution leaves little local economy in place. There is no room for self-satisfaction while we are caught within the institutions of high-tech globalisation.

– John Hinkson


“This is a war debate, or a debate by a society not wanting to think too much about relations with other cultures…
All people are equal. They have to be, or else darkness descends. History demonstrates that.
But all cultures are NOT equal. And that too, has to be said and acknowledged.

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