Lunch at the Lowy

August 15, 2007 at 8:09 am (Uncategorized)

Sorry it’s so late in the afternoon for those (very) few of you who I know check in every day. I only got back to my desk a little while ago. It’s been a number of weeks since I’ve been able to attend a Wednesday Lunch at the Lowy, but I’m certainly glad I made it to today’s.

The guest speaker was Dr Ben Saul, Director of the Sydney Centre for International and Global Law at the University of Sydney. He was speaking about anti-terror laws, first in an international context and second in terms of the situation in Australia. He began with a very brief summary of the history of terrorism, and changes to definitions and expressions of terrorism (as in an instrument of state control VS a form of anti-state resistance) , before moving on to an analysis of the sort of accelerated hyper-articulation of the term that we’ve seen in the Western World since 9/11.

Look, it’s such interesting stuff, and not just because it exposed some of the extant tension between international law and international policy at the level of terrorism response. Dr Saul is one of Sydney’s and probably Australia’s experts on this area of the law, and he just brought a very scholarly, rational perspective to something that engenders so much misplaced hysteria in Australia these days, and that’s the term ‘terrorism’ itself.

So much fear is to do with perception, and the way in which ‘the war on terror’ rhetoric is represented, and so much of the fear is to do with the power of language itself. It’s an incredibly potent term, and Dr Saul made the point that its constant but ill-defined invocation is being used around the world to launch exceptional responses, extra-legal procedures such as execution without trial or regular criminal due process, torture, disappearances, and extra-judicial detainment of civilians based on possible association with potential terrorists. It is a very slippery slope. The sheer breadth of definitions allowed by the term ‘terrorism’ means that democratic nations in favour of suspending human rights in the war on terror ultimately and unduly compromise democracy itself. It’s not a new idea, but it’s still a damn scary one.

Dr Saul noted that there is an unhelpful tendency both in Australia and overseas – and I think he meant at the policy level – to conflate different terror responses into some kind of homogenous pandemic, when in fact they are not the same, and they are not equally harmful. Crises, he said, are often bad paradigms, and that’s certainly the case with 9/11 – it was an extraordinary event, rather than a measure of expected future events.

It’s not as though terrorism is not a threat. Of course it is, and I personally believe the present Australian Government’s exaggeration of the threat to our country has itself been very harmful because it’s been so divisive, xenophobic, insular and dogmatic. Dr Saul suggested that whilst terrorism poses considerable risk around the world, still it commands disproportionate attention relative to its effects, in stark contrast to wars, oppressive states, internal strife, poverty and so on. Around 3,000 people died on 9/11, and a figure was quoted today of 6 million children who die annually of malnutrition.

But, as Dr Saul noted, the quantum of harm caused by terrorism is not what controls perception. There is a powerful and manipulated discourse of terror produced in this country and others by the media and the government in particular. And Dr Saul cautioned that exaggeration of the threat of terrorism has had severe consequences in the past, suggesting Australia could do a lot worse than heed the lessons of past terror hyperbole in countries like the UK and France. We could learn from the mistakes of past responses instead of just bullishly insisting that all means are justified. All means are not justified, nor justifiable. As it stands, Australia is susceptible to the same overreactions that other countries only eliminated through bitter experience. Dr Saul suggested there is a lack of perspective on how security and human rights legislation should be properly balanced. Perhaps one reason for that lack of perspective is the Howard Government’s lack of consultation both with the legal community and the community at large. Access has been denied, the time and means to reflect on proposed changes have been denied, and public engagement with the issues has been strenuously discouraged.

The general public has been deprived of concrete information regarding the threat of terrorism in this country. Nobody is really in a position to make an informed decision about how they feel regarding Australia’s anti-terror laws. Nobody is entirely sure of the extent to which legislative changes around terrorism compromise the privacy and basic human rights protection to which all people are entitled. And our ignorance makes us especially susceptible to the culture of fear, and its accompanying ambiguity about the severity of the threat.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge the threat of terrorism and that our government and law makers shouldn’t do what they can to protect the population and the democratic way of life we enjoy. Clearly our leaders need to respond to changes in the world and changes in Australia. But I don’t think that response should ever involve selling our human rights up the river. That seems to me to be far too high a price to pay for my so-called ‘safety’ and ‘freedom.’ It’s when those human rights, like freedom of speech, are compromised so easily – always in the name of democracy around here – that I really do start to feel terrorised.

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