Governments’ anti-terrorism moves won’t make public safer

June 10, 2017

Once again the mainstream media is using lurid headlines and racist hyperbole to convince us that Australia is under threat from the spectre of Islamist terrorism.

Right-wing columnists are whipping themselves into a frenzy calling for further curbs on the already minuscule opportunity for refugees to settle in Australia, further criminalisation of ideological views and imprisonment without conviction.  

The June 9 COAG meeting of federal and state government leaders discussed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's proposals for tightening parole for those with “terrorist connections”, two Labor state premiers’ call for a new federal prison and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ plan for ASIO to sit on parole boards and for “preventative detention” (imprisonment without trial) and various other “anti-terrorist” measures, such as increased censorship and surveillance.

The NSW government has already announced that it will be arming the Public Order and Riot Squad with military assault rifles and introducing legislation giving police increased “shoot to kill” powers.

This is just the latest in successive waves of anti-terror laws introduced since 2001. They come in the wake of a June 5 incident in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton in which Yacqub Khayre, armed with a sawn-off shotgun, killed one person and took another hostage before being killed in a shoot-out with heavily armed police after emerging from the building he was holed up in, shot-gun blazing.

The man he killed was the receptionist at the serviced apartments where the incident took place, the hostage was a sex worker he had booked as an escort.

The new measures are also being promoted as a response to the inquest into the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney, in which gunman Man Haron Monis took several people hostage and killed one before he and another of his hostages were killed by police.

The media and politicians are also using recent attacks in England to fuel the perception of an increased threat from Islamist terrorism. By ignoring the much higher number of people killed by terrorists in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, they obscure the fact that Muslims and refugees are more typically victims of terrorism than terrorists.

However, a closer examination of these violent crimes, and violent crime in general, shows that the proposed measures, and the politicians' and media's rhetoric, will at best offer no solution and possibly exacerbate the problem.

One issue is that terrorism is becoming defined by Islamophobia. There was a time when hijacking an airliner would have been seen as an archetypical terrorist incident. However, a man with a fake bomb who attempted to hijack a Malaysian Airlines flight from Melbourne on May 31 has not been charged with terrorist offences. He is not a Muslim. He faces up to ten years jail for what he did — less jail time than Muslims convicted of terrorist “plots” that were nothing more than talk, with no weapons obtained or concrete plans.

Other than their religious background, it is difficult to see what makes Khayre and Monis terrorists rather than violent criminals. While both had charges or previous convictions for crimes, including serious violent crimes, these were not of a terrorist nature.

Khayre had been previously charged under anti-terrorist laws, but acquitted. He had also travelled to Somalia in 2009 and gone to a training camp run by al-Shabaab, but had deserted. His convictions were for drug offences, property crimes and assault. At the time of the Brighton incident he was on parole for a violent home invasion. The only way toughening parole convictions for those with “terrorist connections” would have affected Khayre would have been if that specifically applied to those acquitted of terrorism charges.

Toughening parole and bail conditions for terrorist offenders would likewise not have kept Monis off the streets. However, what would have was if existing laws on gender-based violence were consistently implemented. At the time of the Lindt siege, Monis was on bail charged as with accessory to murder of his former partner and more than 40 sexual assault charges.

Significantly, Khalid Masood, responsible for the March 22 hit-and-run and knife attack in London, Rachid Redouane, responsible for the similar but dealier June 3 London attack, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, responsible for the 2016 Nice truck attack, and Omar Mateen, responsible for the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting all had histories of domestic violence. None had any links to any organised terrorist groups.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Muslims: in 57% of mass shootings in the US family members of the perpetrator are among the victims. Hostility to women is often an explicit motive in mass killings, such as Elliot Rodger's 2014 shooting spree in Southern California and Adam Lanza's 2012 massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

However, a man on parole for domestic violence is far more likely to track down his ex-partner and kill her than commit a massacre. The number of women in Australia killed by abusive partners and ex-partners in a single month exceeds the number of people ever killed in terrorist incidents in Australia. And murder is just the extreme of a broad spectrum of gender-based violence.

If the government and media were motivated by promoting public safety the resources and rhetoric directed at Islamist terrorism would be directed at misogyny. Yet the same governments bringing in anti-terror laws have been cutting services that help women and children escape family and domestic violence and changing family law to give violent fathers the right to contact with their children.

Education programs in schools combating sexism and homophobia would cause a real decrease in violence but the columnists in the mainstream tabloids find time to condemn these as a threat to “our values” at the same time as they rail against Muslims, refugees and multiculturalism in the name of combating terrorism.

The anti-terrorism of governments and the mainstream media is about fuelling racism and justifying imperialist wars. In a further irony, international terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda and ISIS were born out of such imperialist wars.

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