Our post-9/11 crusade against terrorism has resulted in piles of legislation designed to combat something we still don’t get.
Back in March, ASIO has changed the language of terrorism, claiming that the existing labels are “no longer fit for purpose”. From now on, terms including “left”, “right”, and “Islamic extremism” will be avoided. Announcing the update in his annual threat assessment, the security organisation’s head, Mike Burgess, said it would now employ two categories: “religiously motivated violent extremism” and “ideologically motivated violent extremism”.
This follows along with the mantra set by Deputy Policy Commissioner Catherine Burn as the bold, “new face” of terrorism is a relatively simple one to comprehend: it is the face of any particularly violent crime, redefined when convenience outweighs reason. The knife attack which occurred in Minto in 2016 was apparently the characteristic case: take a violent crime by one individual on another, “establish” the vague religious or political inclinations of the assailant, and you have not manslaughter (or, in the event of a worse outcome, murder) but terrorism. Add to this a concert of marionettes in the mainstream press and, with incredible simplicity, a not-uncommon crime has become a significant event.
It might seem as though I’m setting up a game of semantics, and maybe so, but I am doing no more than the Deputy Commissioner, and much less than the Prime Minister. The combatting of terrorism is an important pursuit and, like any citizen should be, I am concerned to see it done seriously and productively. Developments, the Minto attack being a case-in-point, lead me to fear that it is not.
The use of the term “terrorism” both in the law and in common discourse has become tautological. It is applied where its usage is convenient, not apt. Part of this comes from the difficulty in defining its parameters. One might consider it an assault on civilian or government targets with a defined political or religious motive; an assault in which mass violence in the moment is both the means and the ends, but where a grander objective, such as a revolution or the dismantling of civil society, is sought. The specifics need more work, but I should think it at the very least common sense to see that an act like the one in Minto can be squeezed into the “terror” box only if the boundaries of “terrorism” are loosened so far as to make them effectively irrelevant.
This is something even then-PM Malcolm Turnbull – among others – sought to do with a vague, unnecessary and callous linkage of the Minto crime to the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks, which had their fifteenth anniversary during the attack.
He justified the comparison by running with the Deputy Commissioner’s announcement that it will be alleged that the Minto attacker was influenced by the Mesopotamian terrorist group, Islamic State. Even if such influence is established definitively, the comparison between the attacks would remain shallow and absurd. The September 11 attacks were an instance of mass murder in which those responsible were directly sponsored and trained by the terrorist organisation, Al-Qaeda. Not only did the Minto attack not receive even the most general of endorsements from any terrorist group, there was no sponsorship, no training and no other plausible linkage.
Why then is the comparison being made, and why is the country’s leadership playing such a wasteful game both with words and with the law? It is a combination of desperation, flippancy, and fear – the desire to be seen to be doing something, especially if one can expand the perceived significance of the event in question. In this context, Turnbull announced that further expanded terror laws will be introduced into Parliament.
As academic Nicola McGarrity pointed out, “Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the Australian parliament has responded to the threat of terrorism here and overseas by enacting dozens of new laws or amending existing laws. In 2011, University of Toronto Professor Kent Roach famously described this response in Australia as one of hyper-legislation.
“Another expert, UNSW Professor George Williams calculated that between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the defeat of the Howard government in November 2007, a new anti-terror law was enacted on average every 6.7 weeks. The declaration of a caliphate by the Islamic State in mid-2014 led to another flurry of legislative activity in parliament.
“This started with the National Security Legislation Amendment Act (No 1) 2014 (Cth), which controversially exempted undercover ASIO officers from criminal prosecution, expanded that organisation’s access to computer networks, and restricted the leaking of sensitive information.
“In the years since then, 19 more anti-terrorism laws have been passed. That brings the total number of substantive anti-terrorism laws enacted by parliament to 82 since the Sept. 11 attacks, with a further six bills either currently before parliament or about to be introduced. This is a staggering number of laws, and far exceeds the volume in the United Kingdom, Canada and even the United States in response to Sept 11.”
These laws (or any will arrive in the future) will not be challenged (not substantively, anyway) because introspection and reason on the issue of terrorism are taken to be obstructions of security and justice.
What is the use of the legislation if its passing and review are not only rushed but unchallenged, especially when it weighs broadened authority against the rule of law?
This misconception – that we need an unwavering consensus on matters of national security – is dangerous, and it risks arriving at the point in which the legislators no longer know the meaning of that which they are supposed to be fighting.