In the three years I’ve been in the Senate, the Abbott and Turnbull governments have introduced multiple bills to address terrorist threats. Each has involved loss of liberty, justified on the grounds that existing laws must be ‘strengthened’. Agencies responsible for combating terrorism have also received substantially increased funding.
Those agencies are now better resourced and have greater powers than any time in our history. Whereas once we could only commit a crime by planning, inciting or undertaking violence, we now risk infringing the law if we investigate, talk about, promote or write about either terrorism or anti-terrorist activity. And of course, the definition of terrorism is sufficiently flexible to cover a multitude of sins.
Recognising how much we have abandoned liberty in favour of security can be difficult when it occurs incrementally, with each change minor in isolation. Often a comparison between the present and the past is required to demonstrate what we have lost.
I had an opportunity to consider this recently when I launched Kingdom of the Wicked, a novel written by my former staffer, Helen Dale. It reimagines how Jesus would fare under Roman law assuming the Roman Empire had undergone an industrial revolution. That is, while it enjoys modern technology, Roman law and culture remain intact. Helen has degrees in both common law and Roman law and an extensive understanding of life in Ancient Rome.
The book describes a charismatic carpenter known as Yeshua Ben Yusuf who is attracting attention. The Jewish establishment is concerned about losing control over their people and lobby the Romans to do something about him, calling him a “serious threat to the internal security of this province.”
There is a riot in the Jerusalem Temple when Yusuf and his followers violently assault the money-changers and trash the Temple market. Yusuf is armed with a whip and there is a death when he grapples with a man who falls and hits his head. They are all arrested and charged, including Yehuda Iscariot, a genuine terrorist who wants Yusuf to be more violent than he is.
The book describes the process, under Roman law, leading to the trial of both men. The advocate assigned to defend them takes the task seriously, while the prosecution is equally diligent in gathering evidence to prove guilt. Yusuf and Iscariot are remanded in custody.
The riot occurs against a backdrop of cultural clashes. The Romans are convinced their laws and culture are superior and view the straight-laced Jews as weird. The Jews regard the Romans as immoral and dissolute – tolerant of homosexuality and abortion, and sexually uninhibited.
Notwithstanding the benefits of Roman rule (low crime rates, good public health and high rates of literacy), many Jews want to expel the Roman colonial power. Led by the Zealots, they use IEDs, conduct raids and shoot people – both Romans and Jewish collaborators. There are no suicide bombs but plenty of dead bodies, with a particularly vicious attack on an abortion clinic.
There are obvious parallels with current circumstances and it’s fascinating to compare the story as described in the book with how Yusuf would be treated today. Some differences are clear-cut; Roman law allows the use of torture on non-citizens, subject to a warrant and within strict limits. The Romans also endorse the death penalty.
However, the Romans have no specific laws against terrorism. Planning, plotting and advocating the overthrow of Roman rule is not an offence. Yusuf can only be tried for conspiring and undertaking activities that lead to deaths and injuries. He isn’t charged for having links to the Zealots, isn’t subject to preventative detention or secret evidence, doesn’t have his passport cancelled and isn’t made subject to a control order. The media are also not at risk for reporting on his activities or the activities of the security agencies.
However, as the story in Kingdom of the Wicked unfolds, the Romans become more and more paranoid about the province of Judaea and start breaking their own laws concerning treatment of suspects and responses to terrorism.
Less than half a century ago, Jesus was sometimes regarded as a bit of a hippy. Askingwhether a religious figure commonly associated with pacifism (or at least principled opposition to authority) would be caught under modern counter-terrorism legislation enables us to reflect on the sort of authoritarian, illiberal laws we have enacted in the name of the “War on Terror”.
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