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If only MPs were smarter on terror

By Waleed Aly - posted Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Terrorism is more frighteningly evocative than it is deadly. It relies not on fatalities, but on shock. Accordingly, it can cause pervasive distress, even when operations misfire. Consider: three weeks after attempted attacks in Britain failed to kill or injure a single intended target, the story still dominates our news bulletins. Terrorism succeeds even when it fails.

The secret of that success lies in the responses it generates. Terrorism is an effective political tool precisely because it has the ability to manipulate the actions of the societies it targets.

The most obvious way this happens is through a strategy of provocation. Violently radical movements know they can only survive in a radicalised environment. Terrorism, then, often seeks to goad the enemy into a repressive response; one that makes it look as evil as terrorists insist it is and radicalises previously benign observers. The result is tragically circular: further recruitment means more terrorist attacks, which provoke greater crackdowns that further radicalisation. The policy lesson here is simple: react where appropriate, but never overreact.


That is not easy, but it is crucial. When Egypt's Nasser government cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the 1950s by brutalising thousands of its members, it only increased the occurrence of terrorist activity. Among those greatly radicalised by the experience was one Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy at al-Qaida.

Now consider the case of Mohamed Haneef. Haneef has certainly not been brutalised but he does now find himself in solitary confinement in a Brisbane jail. This seems a little extreme for someone who, if he was involved in recent failed terror plots in Britain at all, is not even alleged to have known it. At this point, the evidence against Haneef is collapsing. The Australian Federal Police has manifestly bungled the investigation, and the case against Haneef was weak enough for him to be granted bail, a difficult thing in a terrorism case.

The legal process through which Haneef is being tried is controversial, but at least it is independent, judicial, and in its way, measured. Yet once this process was responsible for bailing Haneef, the federal Government foolishly intervened, thereby politicising and inflaming the terrain unnecessarily.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews' extraordinary decision to cancel Haneef's visa and send him to immigration detention on the pretext that he failed the Migration Act's character test - aside from being of questionable merit - was appallingly timed within hours of Haneef obtaining bail. It whiffed overwhelmingly of calculation rather than coincidence and cast a suspicious shadow over the episode. Now Haneef has broad sympathy, and will likely become a radical propaganda tool. Here, the Government fell into the familiar trap of overreaction.

But why? The fashionable polemic is that the Howard Government is exploiting, or even inventing, the threat of terrorism for political gain. But it is more incisive to consider the reverse process: how the democratic process might actually drive governments to overreact dangerously.

As it happens, democracies are poorly equipped to resist being provoked by terrorism. Authoritarian regimes, of course, often respond in the most brutally unprincipled way, but they are also better placed to suppress media reporting on attacks, thereby denying them oxygen, and allowing regimes to resist any public pressure to react. Democratic societies with a free media have no such luxury. Their internal logic makes them an attractive target for terrorists, because they can be trusted to give terrorism wide exposure, creating unbearable popular pressure to meet it with a strong response. In a sense, democracies are victims of their own strength.


Only last week, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock neatly encapsulated this democratic impulse when interrogated about the fairness of Haneef's treatment, responding: "You would be asking me different types of questions if we found out later that there were avenues of inquiry that could have been pursued ... and some terrible event happened in Australia."

Ruddock is undoubtedly correct, which only demonstrates that it is politically safer in the face of a terror threat for a democratic government to overreact, even if it is strategically unwise. Even the Opposition is hamstrung, and supports the Government's conduct at every turn. It wouldn't dare do anything else.

Western politicians assure us of their toughness on terror. They have little choice. It is harder in a democracy to show strategic restraint. If only politicians were rewarded for being smart on terror.

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First published in The Australian on July 23, 2007.

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About the Author

Waleed Aly, a Melbourne lawyer, is a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria executive. He is a lecturer in the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash Univeristy. His book, People Like Us (Picador), will be published in September.

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