Friday, November 19, 2010

Acts Of Crime Should Not Be Misconstrued As Acts Of War

They say that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It’s an expression that I have never been comfortable with, because it can so easily be misused to legitimise what are otherwise quite simply criminal acts. Sure, we can all accept that Nelson Mandela was at one time considered by his own country to be a terrorist, only to later be hailed as a hero. Of course, the truth is that Nelson Mandela really was a freedom fighter who represented the oppressed majority of his countrymen, and so it is easy to arrive at the judgement that he was not really a terrorist at all. It’s not quite so easy to dismiss the Palestinian suicide bombers who can also legitimately claim to be oppressed in their own land, but who are much harder for us to identify with. The tactics that they choose to employ are sufficiently horrific to erode any sympathy we might otherwise be tempted to feel.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the United States has introduced a range of new security measures and enacted laws which place greater controls over its own population. Australia, along with many other countries, has followed a similar path with laws which specify not only the physical acts of terrorism, but also the motivations behind it. To some degree, these are laws which are only a few steps away from making it illegal to hold certain beliefs, to say certain things, and to associate with certain people. The real risk, which needs to be weighed in the balance when considering such laws, is the prospect that they will effectively undermine the very freedoms and ideals that they purport to protect. It is this risk to free speech, and ultimately free thought, that prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside will address in a presentation at the State Library tonight.

Mr. Burnside will say in his speech, “The terrorist acts we all fear are also orthodox criminal offences. The important question is whether it is a good idea to create a range of offences which depend on a definition based on an ideological purpose, and which casts such a wide net using that definition as a starting point.” It is at this point in the speech where Mr. Burnside points out that our legal definition of terrorism would include not only Nelson Mandela, but also the rebels at the Eureka Stockade. His point is that the law itself is flawed, and could so easily be perverted to ensnare anyone who expresses dissent. He is right to consider this to be a threat to our civil liberties, and our right to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of thought itself.

But there is another flaw in our approach to terrorism. It has been a mistake to declare a “War on Terror” in the military sense, because it only serves to legitimise the purported political causes behind it, when really today’s terrorists do not serve any genuine cause. A war implies a contest between sovereign nations, or at the very least between legitimate competing interests. Declaring a “War on Terror” awards the terrorists a status they do not deserve when they are nothing more than psychopathic criminals who do not represent any recognised country or religion. Osama bin Laden could never be confused with a freedom fighter, and neither could Abu Bakar Bashir.

Just because people purport to be warriors of some kind does not mean that they really are, and acts of crime should not be misconstrued as acts of war.

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