Our Prime Minister is out of his depth in the present ‘crisis’ – although it must be said straight away, if we in Australia do not yet face a crisis, then the Prime Minister will make sure that we do quite soon. His back down in regard to the caging of visitors to parliament who wear the burqa was a humiliation. His claim that we are not at war in Iraq but on a combat mission in the pursuit of humanitarian objectives is sophistry: it is clear that we have been at war in Iraq for some time, as I have argued already in this blog. Indeed, it seems that we are at war at home too, against a section of our own community. The actions taken by the government in going to war and in enacting measures at home to ‘increase our security’ are not only profoundly distressing to fair-minded Australians, not only are they morally wrong, but they make matters worse, they are counter-productive. In this blog I will outline briefly my reasons for saying this.
1. War in Iraq. Wars are morally wrong because of the harms they cause. They can be justified on condition that they prevent more harm than they cause, but it is – I now think – impossible to be reasonably assured of this in advance. Just cause for war amounts in every case to resisting aggression, either against oneself or in aid of a third party. If there is just cause for this war, then it must be, from Australia’s perspective, be to protect third parties against aggression, and this indeed is how it is portrayed. However, Australia has allied itself with the same group that created the terrible mess Iraq finds itself in, the US and Britain, with a few additions. Why on earth would any sensible person think that this group will prevent more harm than they cause, given their record of the past decade or more?
Air power alone does not win wars, unless there is sustained use of nuclear weapons. Air power is only effective in combined operations with decent ground troops. But there are no decent ground troops in Iraq. It is totally predictable that IS will disperse its forces, for instance among the civilian population, and wait for the air campaign to wear out. The air campaign will make matters worse because it will kill more civilians, it will radicalise more Muslims and create more jihadis. Australia’s participation will cause divisions and resentments at home, and make the country a terrorist target for generations to come. In short, what Australia is doing will be ineffective, and it will make matters worse at home and in Iraq.
2. New laws at home. Laws which have been passed comprise new surveillance powers for police and intelligence agencies, greater immunity from prosecution for officers of those agencies, new offences for naming those officers or publishing certain other information. These infringements on our privacy are minor compared to the Draconian measures in the pipeline. These latter impact directly on our basic freedom: we will be prevented for going to certain countries and if we do the onus will be on us to prove that we were not engaged in terrorist activities; we may be detained and questioned even if we are not suspected of terrorist activities; we may be held incommunicado for 14 days without being arrested. The KGB and the Stasi had virtually unlimited power over the citizens of their countries, but the latter in particular could usually make an ‘untrained’ person confess to almost anything in fewer that 14 days – apparently they just kept you awake.
These later proposals are outrageous. We can look forward to the standard rationale that all governments trot out when they propose to restrict our basic civil liberties: that only criminals and terrorists have anything to worry about, ordinary law-abiding citizens will be quite safe – indeed, it is for the sake of the latter that these measures are taken. This presupposes that ASIO, the AFP and goodness knows who else are infallible, or at least highly competent. We have no reason to believe that, as witnessed by the bumbling incompetence of the massive pre-dawn raids in Sydney two weeks ago, carried out by hundreds of police: only one person was arrested and he does not appear to be fanatical terrorist. The more power these people have, the greater the potential for damage. We have basic civil liberties precisely because we need to be protected from the authorities. Meekly letting these be eroded away is a terrible mistake.
There are three major problems with these new laws, especially with the ones in the pipeline. First, and most importantly, some are incompatible with a liberal democratic society, others are unusual and should have the status of emergency measures, namely be accompanied by a ‘sunset clause’. I surely do not need to elaborate on this further: no democratic state can allow its citizens to be detained for 14 days without being charged. In the second place, these laws will be enforced by authorities that are (considerably) less than perfect: hence there will be miscarriages of justice and innocents will be harmed. Finally, there is no doubt that these laws will not be applied all sections of the community with the same vigour: no doubt Muslims will be the special target
In addition to the specific problems with 1 and 2, these decisions will serve to radicalise Australians, most likely young Muslim men. If Australia does not yet face a significant home-grown terrorist threat, it most certainly will by the time Abbot and his team of hopeless incompetents have had their way.
Note added 8/10. According to the most recent estimate, the war in Iraq will cost just over 28 times what Australia has spent to help the Ebola crisis in West Africa. No need to for me to comment further...