Bruce Sinclair argues that before any changes to national security laws are put into practice, they must first be put into perspective.
So Tony Abbott and David Cameron are having a Prime Ministerial Bromance.
That’s nice. I’m always in favour of men getting together, grappling each other’s shirt fronts and baring their chests, secure in their masculinity. However, this seems to have extended beyond personal posturing and into national security.
In his recent address to the Australian Parliament, Cameron brandished new measures to combat the threat of ISIS:
“We must not allow the internet to be an ungoverned space…In the UK we are pushing (companies) to do more, including…being more proactive in taking down this harmful material…there’s the power to take away people’s passports, the power to stop people travelling and there’s the power to exclude people temporarily until they return under our express instructions…”
These will extend powers already enforced by the UK 2006 Terrorism Act. As they also go further than those considered here, Australian politicians are likely to be emboldened. Though Western states need a potent response to ISIS, putting these particular initiatives into practice is fraught with dilemmas that need to be examined in relation to the history, effectiveness and morality of border control and censorship.
Most of us are familiar with having to produce officially sanctioned documents to exit or enter a sovereign state. However, the passport has been with us for a relatively short time, being the product of the British Nationality and Status Aliens Act 1914. This, along with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which stipulates that, “…everyone has the right to leave a country, including his own,” has been the bedrock for the regulation of cross border movements. Australia and Britain’s announcements now present changes to this regime, which, whilst capturing some potential ISIS fighters, also run the risk of hauling in those whose motives we may consider less misplaced.
In the 1930s, George Orwell left Britain to fight for the Republicans against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. If he returned from this conflict today, he would be arrested and charged with fighting abroad for a “political, ideological, religious or racist motive.” For those who consider such an analysis flawed (we cannot, after all, apply present day laws retrospectively), try telling this to the 16 people arrested in January on their return from fighting to protect their families against the Assad regime in Syria.
Both they and Orwell were combatting systematic mass torture, murder and the methodological destruction of entire communities. The British government argued these arrests were justified, because the experience may have radicalised them enough to join ISIS, leading to jihadi violence at home, and that the law must be applied robustly, no matter how loathsome the people on the other side. We must consider whether we are happy that some who are less than sympathetic to ISIS and their cause will become caught up in these measures and what effect this may have on the attitudes of their families, friends and communities. This situation has been further complicated by recent reports of British mercenaries employed to fight against ISIS in Syria. Moreover, it can only be a matter of time before there is a court case challenging restrictions on the right of exit or return. As it is likely to be long and drawn-out, it will also mean the possible suspension of the measures until their legality has been tested.
The effective use of such steps also presupposes that the authorities can accurately identify the hostile intentions of those about to leave the country. The recent case of four Australian brothers travelling through Turkey to join ISIS, entirely unknown previously to security services, highlights the problem here. As they were unknown, presumably they had no contact with groups the security services considered to be of borderline interest. This points to the possibility that they were radicalised through exposure to the type of “harmful material” that Cameron has in mind. The suggestion of controlling this would seem sensible. However, there are several questions that need to be raised. For example: Does such material cause radicalisation or do those already radicalised seek it? There is also the implication for free speech; What is “harmful” and who decides?
Recent research into the effects of Islamic extremist videos shows that the relationship between watching such propaganda and its effect is complex. For example, more non-radicalised Muslims responded with reactions of shame and aversion than interest. It is the latter that is a necessary first step for accepting and then acting on a message. Moreover I am not, as yet, aware of any attempts to “debrief” returning extremists on the role of such videos in their choice to leave and fight. Indeed, field research on terrorist recruitment shows that collective views reinforced through close friendships are one of the most compelling forces for radicalisation, and that conventional media reporting of military action by the Western democracies feeds this.
The challenge for Cameron and Abbott is to ensure that security policies are nuanced enough to deal with such dilemmas and go beyond bluntly exposing their pecs and beating their chests.