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Paradigm of (t)error

By Amjid Muhammad - posted Tuesday, 22 November 2005

The verdict on the nine arrested in Melbourne has already been given. It wasn’t their plea, nor was it the conclusion of the judge, but it was the joint proclamation by elements of the government, authorities, the media and the public.

Let me make my position clear, terrorism is against Islam, and I oppose it. Those guilty of it, whether they live in caves, the White Hlouse, or suburban Melbourne, should be brought to task. Yet in these charged and emotive times we should not forget the foundations of our legal system, which is the presumption of innocence and a fair trial.

What happened last week was more akin to a hunter showing off his catch. The swoop for the alleged (terrorists) and the parading of the trophy catches was publicised due to an apparent tip-off to the media. I couldn’t help feeling a sense of gloating from our authorities. Add to that the irresponsible comments by the police commissioner, it is no wonder that the defence lawyer Rob Stary feels that it is inconceivable that his clients will receive a fair trial in the foreseeable future. The secretary of NSW Bar Association, Robert Toner, SC, aptly describes the proceedings as “an almost McCarthyist climate …”


The chants of victory and vindication may be premature; these individuals are innocent, until proved guilty.

Phillip Ruddock and Acting Deputy Commissioner of Victoria Police Noel Ashby both have clearly indicated a principle of pre-emption in making these raids. The idea seems reasonable at face value: if we don’t act quickly enough, we are putting lives at risk. We rather err on the side of caution. However, a preemptive strategy is prone to error because it involves a large element of subjectivity.

This principle was coined in the US as the “paradigm of prevention” and is used extensively in justifying anti-terror countermeasures. The principle revolves around acting before a crime is committed. As a result, evidence is not paramount and suspicion will suffice as a reason to act. A conclusion is made - usually a worst case scenario - and acted upon. Loss of civil rights is a natural consequence, the advocates of this principle would argue; but the true extent of the threat is always contentious.

We have seen this notion fail many times, most notably when it was used to justify the war on Iraq. We were told Saddam possessed in his arsenal WMDs ready to be unleashed, but to add spice to it all, he also was supposed to have links with Al-Qaida. A nightmare scenario had to be averted. Of course, there were no WMDs and no such links. Australia continues to place its forces at risk in Iraq based on a concept of  pre-emption.

The US and UK have also used this principle domestically when dealing with terrorism, with flawed results. In the US a series of “sleeper cell” cases were based on innocuous activity which was decrypted as evidence. The Boston sleeper cell case was based on an innocent home video of Disneyland, while the Detroit sleeper cell case was based on a series of drawings interpreted as a terrorist plan. Later this "plan" was discovered to be scribblings of a lunatic, a Yemeni who believed he was the minister of defence. In each of these cases, the US Government proclaimed these arrests as a victory against the war on terror, only for the charges later to be embarrassingly dropped. Until now there is no real evidence of sleeper cells in the US.

Similarly in the UK, 664 arrests were made under the anti-terrorism law before the London bombings, out of which only three were charged with unrelated offences. No links with Al-Qaida were made. Ironically the majority arrested under the law were related to Irish terror groups.


It is not unreasonable to believe that if Australian authorities employ this principle, errors will be made. The nine Melbourne men are accused of being part of a terrorist group, which is unnamed, vague, and has no target for an attack. We have to wait and see what evidence is brought forth to convict these individuals.

It may or may not be that these individuals are guilty. Keeping in mind that the “paradigm of prevention” has proved to be flawed on numerous occasions, let’s at least not convict them so soon. In times where most things are grey, it’s prudent to exercise a great degree of caution before jumping to conclusions.

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About the Author

Dr Amjid Muhammad is a practicing dentist and graduated from the University of Melbourne with honours. He is involved with voluntary work with Islamic welfare and support agencies. Amjid Muhammad was born in Singapore and his parents are of Pakistani origin. He arrived in Australia from Singapore in 1989.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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