Fear Works


On the fourth anniversary of September 11, Prime Minister John Howard claimed (yet again) that the al-Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington ‘were an attack on our way of life.’ He’s mouthed the same platitudes since that fateful day always hoping that a majority of Australians shared his perspective.

And sure enough, a recent World Vision report found that 31 per cent of Australians were worried about an increase in terrorism, while the worldwide average was 22 per cent. Howard and his media cheerleaders should be pleased with their efforts. They have created an environment that cleverly plays on people’s fears about threats to our ‘way of life’ and our ‘values’.

For liberal democracies, questioning and confronting this orthodoxy presents one of the greatest challenges since Cold War propaganda convinced millions that the (crumbling and inefficient) Soviets were actually determined to destroy our benign, capitalist, Western world.

‘Values’ are becoming the key battleground of the War on Terror.

But the recent deportation of US peace activist Scott Parkin reveals the extent to which our values are being subverted by the very people assuring us they are the guardians of those values. Attorney General Phillip Ruddock claimed that Parkin’s ‘political activities were not relevant to the decision [to expel him],’ and yet refused to explain the reason for his removal. It is hard not to conclude it was due to Parkin’s anti-corporate agenda (during his visit, he spoke often about the ‘profiteering’ of a number of Western corporations In Iraq and elsewhere).

In a response to the expulsion, Brian Walters, president of Liberty Victoria (the Victorian Council of Civil Liberties), wrote an impassioned article in The Age. ‘It is our tolerance of a wide range of views that gives our nation so much of its strength’, he said. ‘Our ability to hear and open our minds to even radical views makes us stronger – not weaker.’ Even The Australian expressed concern over Parkin’s deportation. The paper ‘supported laws to protect us against terrorism, but not when they are misused to suppress political debate.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

None of this worried Howard mouthpiece and blogger Tim Blair. ‘Australia has long been too soft on so-called ‘peaceful’ protesters who block roads, disrupt lawful businesses and otherwise impose their will on others,’ he argued. One wonders how he would feel if the political wind changed, and right-wing, free-marketeers were the types being summarily evicted.

Howard’s proposed anti-terror legislation should be debated, challenged and confronted head-on. Gerard Henderson – the Fairfax Press’s resident government apologist – argued that these proposed laws are acceptable and that it’s only journalists and civil libertarians who are complaining. But the Sydney Morning Herald urged caution and patience and, unlike Henderson, refused to take Government assurances at face value.

ABC TV’s Lateline continued the questioning and reported that a Monash University study had detected deep suspicion among Muslim youth in Australia towards the Government’s so-called anti-terror policies. Dissenter John Pilger even made a rare appearance on Australian television and asked why ‘if we’re talking about terrorism, is State terrorism [left out of the debate]. The fact that Australia enthusiastically joined a rapacious, illegal attack on a defenseless country in which tens of thousands of people died [is ignored].’

Throughout the current terrorism debate in Australia, little attention has been paid to the British experience. Tony Blair is routinely praised for getting ‘tough’ on terrorism, but how useful are his proposals? The Guardian‘s Richard Norton-Taylor wrote in mid August that much of Blair’s posturing would prove virtually useless in catching suspected terrorists or preventing another London-style attack. There was no link, for example, between the nonviolent Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir and the London bombings, and yet Blair wanted to ban the organisation.

‘Blair needed to be seen to be doing something,’ Norton-Taylor explained and he warned that the measures would possibly alienate ‘the very people that the government – and not least the [intelligence]agencies – need on their side.’

In a further sign that intelligence agencies and government are unhealthily cosy, the head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller said in a September speech in the Netherlands that the ‘world has changed’ and civil liberties would have to be sacrificed. The benefits of such measures were not articulated.

This month the UK Independent revealed that a London arms fair included British and American companies marketing weapons tested in Iraq. The spokesman for the fair said the invasion and occupation of Iraq had been ‘good news’ for the major arms companies. A spokesman for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade said,

[The Iraqi war] has allowed them to label their arms as battle-tested and provided them with promotional material for their missiles, bombs, fighter aircraft, artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles. They will be marketing their weapons to countries from around the world with the full support of the UK Government and the perverse promotional assistance provided by the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

The Independent even discovered that cluster bombs were on sale at the London arms fair, despite assurances from the organisers that they would not be.

As the West exports misery to despots across the world, our infantile debate revolves around defending Western ‘values’. I wonder if citizens on the receiving end of these weapons – provided by multinational arms companies – would be comforted with comments by the executive manager of the company selling the cluster bombs in London: ‘I believe we would only export them to stable, mature sort of countries,’ Gyfford Fitchat said.

As the fourth anniversary of 9/11 recedes, our political and media elite appears content rehashing old fears and creating new ones. Australian expatriate journalist Phillip Knightley recently reminded us that the global terrorist threat had actually increased during the period of Bush, Blair and Howard. As he rightly stated, we must struggle to understand the motives of ‘terrorists’ – as was done with the IRA, ETA and a host of others – and only then can we truly say our ‘values’ are worth defending.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.