A fair go in an age of terror

As we move into an election year in Australia and in the United States where the incumbents John Howard and George W. Bush have led the initiatives for countering the emerging terrorist threat unveiled since September 11, 2001, there is the risk that any critique of these initiatives can be seen to be party political or partisan. That is not my purpose. I am quite agnostic as to whether Mark Latham, John Howard or any other conceivable inhabitant of the Lodge, would be any more solicitous of human rights and protective of Australian identity in response to such a crisis. Though it is important to examine the conduct of political leaders, my purpose is to see how robust our democratic processes are in finding the right balance. To examine how informed and committed we are in insisting that our politicians do not diminish fundamental human rights in the name of national security.

At times of national insecurity, there is an increased need for citizens to trust their political leaders and those leaders are likely to feel acutely any criticism of their discharge of that trust. There are lessons for us, without our canonising or demonising, any particular political actors.

The United States now claims the prerogative for unilateral action, not only in making pre-emptive strikes against imminent threats, but also in taking preventive action to destroy a prospective enemy’s capacity to become a threat. Bush claims a mandate for ‘deal(ing) with those threats before they become imminent’. The bottom line for Bush with Saddam Hussein was: ‘the fact that he had the ability to make a weapon. That wasn’t right.’

The invasion of Iraq was consistent with the previously published neo-conservative agenda of Mr Bush’s key advisers. Regime change in Iraq was a centre-piece of their agenda. Our own Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) told our parliamentary inquiry into the intelligence operations preceding the recent war: ‘We made a judgement here in Australia that the United States was committed to military action against Iraq. We had the view that was, in a sense, independent of the intelligence assessment.’

When tabling the unanimous, all-party report, the government member David Jull told Parliament of the Committee’s conclusion ‘that there was unlikely to be large stocks of weapons of mass destruction, certainly none readily deployable.’ We did not go to war because there was an imminent threat to our security. We went to war because the Americans asked us to. The reasons why have become a movable feast. Before the war, Prime Minister Howard insisted the goal was disarmament. ‘I couldn’t justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I’ve never advocated that.’ The problem was that George Bush’s advisers did, and their request was met. Howard told parliament that Iraq’s ‘possession of chemical and biological weapons and its pursuit of a nuclear capability poses a real and unacceptable threat to the stability and security of our world’. Walter Lewincamp, the head of DIO, said this ‘was not a judgement that DIO would have made.’ It’s a pity they were not asked!

Even if the United Nations Security Council be not considered formally to be the relevant authority for deciding just cause for war, it remains a suitable sieve for processing the conflicting claims in determining whether there is ‘a real and unacceptable threat to the stability and security of our world’, and whether or not war is the only realistic resort. The French and Germans had various motives for their stand, just as the English and the Americans did. Given the mix of motives, the elusiveness of truth, and the now admitted unreliability of the intelligence, it would be better in future to have decisions made by a community of disparate nations united only by a common concern for international security against terrorism, rather than a coalition of allies who either share, or are neutral about, the strategic objectives of the US administration.

Our politicians have a difficult decision to make when assessing intelligence about the likelihood of weapons of mass destruction being developed and handed on to terrorist organisations. In times of crisis, we need to trust our leaders. It becomes more difficult to grant that trust when the rationale for war is changed after the event. The belated emphasis on the humanitarian concern for the Iraqi people was rank hypocrisy on the part of the United States which first gave Saddam Hussein his WMD capacity for countering Iran. Hypocrisy too, from an Australian government which punished Iraqi asylum seekers who had the temerity to seek asylum within our borders. Trust in government would be better maintained if Mr Howard simply admitted that his public rationale for war was the honouring of the US alliance irrespective of the wisdom of seeking regime change in Iraq without UN endorsement, and the concern about readily deployable WMDs regardless of shortcomings in the intelligence.

Prior to the Madrid bombings last month, many Australians thought our participation in the war was justified because the world was now a safer place. We had won without any Australian loss of life, and the murderous Saddam Hussein had lost power. Post-Madrid, we have to question whether the world is indeed safer and whether Australia is at no greater risk of being a special target for terrorist groups.

In the lead up to the Iraqi war, the church leadership in the US, UK and Australia was remarkably united in its criticism of the public rationale for war. However, there was a variety of views about the margin for error to be afforded to government. When asked about the clear opposition from church leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Howard told the National Press Club: ‘There is a variety of views being expressed. I think in sheer number of published views, there would have been more critical than supportive. I thought the articles that came from Archbishop Pell and Archbishop Jensen were both very thoughtful and balanced. I also read a very thoughtful piece from Bishop Tom Frame, who is the Anglican Bishop of the Australian Defence Forces. The greater volume of published views would have been critical, but I think there have been some very thoughtful other views and the ones I have mentioned, I certainly include in them.’

Once the war commenced, Archbishop Jensen said, ‘For my own part I remain unpersuaded that we ought to have committed our military forces, but I recognise the limitations of my judgement and the sincerity of those who differ.’ After the war, Bishop Frame said: ‘If it is established that the weapons did not exist and the Coalition did or should have known this, the war will not have been justified and must be deemed immoral. A case for war against Iraq based solely on “regime change” would have been inadequate and I would have been obliged to share this conclusion with those for whom I have a pastoral responsibility.’

Despite the Prime Minister’s fudging of the issue, Cardinal Pell has never given any public indication that the war was justified. Pell did not make any clarifying statement once the war commenced. He let stand his earlier caveat, ‘The public evidence is as yet insufficient to justify going to war, especially without the backing of the UN Security Council.’ The Prime Minister’s statements and the Cardinal’s later silence left many Catholics confused. Presumably the Prime Minister drew solace from the Cardinal’s pre-war observation, ‘Decisions about war belong to Caesar, not the church.’ Though Caesar makes the decision, the church must discern and comment on the morality of that decision. Church leaders must publicly help their people make the moral assessment. It is not good enough to suspend the moral faculty and simply trust the government of the day. If we do that with war, then what of other moral issues? When it comes to war, Cardinal Pell allows more scope for an unformed or uninformed conscience than most other church leaders, including the Pope.

Church leaders like the Anglican Primate, Peter Carnley, have received rough handling from government when they have publicly questioned the morality and prudence of our strong alliance with the United States in an ‘age of terror’. Two days after the Bali bombings in October 2002, Archbishop Carnley promptly published a letter pledging prayers and support for the victims and their families. A few days later he then addressed the annual synod in Perth, observing, ‘The targeting of a nightclub, which is known to have been popular with young Australians on holiday, suggests that this terrorist attack was aimed both at Australia, as one of the allies of the United States of America and, at the same time, at what is seen by militant Muslims to be the decadence of western culture.’

Does anyone now seriously doubt what Carnley was saying? Australians were being targeted both because we are identified with the decadent West by militant Muslims and also because of our close relationship to the United States. There may also have been other factors, including our intervention in East Timor. Carnley’s remarks greatly upset Anglicans John Howard and Alexander Downer. In the 2003 Playford Oration, Downer singled out Carnley’s behaviour post-Bali as an instance of ‘the tendency of some church leaders to ignore their primary pastoral obligations in favour of hogging the limelight on complex political issues.’ Ignoring Carnley’s earlier pastoral letter of support for the victims and their families, Downer falsely stated, ‘There was no concentration on comforting the victims and their families, no binding up of the broken-hearted while a shocked nation mourned.’ Two months before Downer’s Playford Oration, the government was arguing for an expansion of ASIO’s powers in the Senate. Government Senator Santoro told the Senate: ‘We know from horrific experience that not only do Australians face the same level of threat as any other people but also, as was the case in Bali in October last year, they are very specific targets.’

What Santoro said is quite consistent with Carnley’s position. So what’s the problem? Are we not permitted to speculate on why Australians are very specific targets? Or is that no role for reflective church leaders? Our political leaders have readily conceded that we are a target with terrorists because we are Western. They have also conceded that we are a target because of the fine things we have done such as assisting with the restoration of peace and order in East Timor. But they get very testy when there is any suggestion that our closeness to the Americans, or our commitment to coalitions of the willing, could heighten the risk to our security. There must be room for informed and divergent debate without vehement government attacks on people such as Archbishop Carnley. Trust and respec ought be mutual even in times of crisis.

In the wake of the Madrid bombings, Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty answered the question, ‘Could this happen here?’ in words reminiscent of Archbishop Carnley: ‘If this turns out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain, it’s more likely to be linked to the position that Spain and other allies took on issues such as Iraq. And I don’t think anyone’s been hiding the fact that we do believe that ultimately one day, whether it be in one month’s time, one year’s time, or ten years’ time, something will happen.’

Though there was spirited debate and cabinet resignations in the UK because of Mr Blair’s ready membership of the Coalition of the Willing, Canberra compliance with prime ministerial directives was complete. It was troubling to hear differing messages at that time from Prime Minister Howard and Tony Abbott about the increased risks of terrorism to Australian citizens. Abbott, the Leader of the Government in the House, told Parliament, ‘There is the increased risk of terrorist attack here in Australia’. Next day, the Prime Minister told us, ‘We haven’t received any intelligence in recent times suggesting that there should be an increase in the level of security or threat alert.’ Regardless of who was right, their contradictory statements provided incontrovertible evidence that there was insufficient debate, discussion and discernment within the Cabinet and political party processes, prior to making a commitment to war in such novel political circumstances. The thinking was done in Washington. We signed on, presuming that our national interest and the international common good would be served by Alliance compliance. In these circumstances, there is a place for unelected citizens, including church leaders, to speak out. If they are misunderstood and then correct the public record, as Archbishop Carnley did, that should be acknowledged by our very sensitive political leaders.

Confronted with threats of terrorism, government has a responsibility to arm police, defence and intelligence personnel with the powers to protect us while respecting the civil liberties of all persons. We Australians lack a Bill of Rights to guide our judges or restrict our governments. The Senate and the parliamentary committee system worked well when the government tried to bluff the Parliament into passing amendments to the ASIO legislation that would have entrenched draconian measures on our statute books in 2002. Originally the government proposed that ASIO would be able to detain any person incommunicado, including a child. ASIO would have been able to detain indefinitely any person without charge or even suspicion. While detained, any person could have been strip-searched, questioned for unlimited periods and prevented from contacting family members, their employer, or even a lawyer. They would not have been able to inform loved ones of their detention and could have been denied legal advice.

Senator John Faulkner said that ‘the original ASIO bill was perhaps the worst drafted bill ever introduced into the Australian parliament.’ Thanks to the Senate, the legislation is now more protective of human rights, while responsive to the present terrorist threat. There was a lengthy stand-off between the government and the Senate over this legislation. Before Christmas 2002 when the legislation was deadlocked John Howard warned, ‘If this bill does not go through and we are not able to clothe our intelligence agencies with this additional authority over the summer months it will be on the head of the Australian Labor Party and on nobody else’s head.’ The government then further delayed the legislation so it could be added to the mix of a double dissolution election, if need be. Having been introduced in March 2002, the legislation was passed in highly amended form in June 2003. The legislation now contains a three-year sunset clause so it has to be reviewed by our parliamentarians after the next election. Sir Harry Gibbs provided an assessment of the final product in his Australia Day address to the Samuel Griffith Society. He notes that the powers given to ASIO are ‘drastic’ and ‘only experience will show whether (the) safeguards are sufficient’. Gibbs says the law goes too far in prohibiting lawyers and others publishing information about the questioning of any person. This could ‘prevent publication of the fact that an abuse of power or a serious error of judgement had occurred.’ The government likes to portray the Senate as obstructionist, but the Senate has modified national security legislation to better protect civil liberties.

When we experience a low ebb in the political cycle with government encountering little opposition in the House of Representatives, or on John Laws and Alan Jones’ radio programs, it is difficult to conduct robust public dialogue about policies related to minorities and national security. Fear and flabbiness take over. There is an ongoing deficit in public honesty and rigorous inquiry when it comes to debate about the morality of our engagement in war, about the limits of ASIO’s powers, about our treatment of asylum seekers and the identification of their deprivations with national security and border protection. There is an important democratic role for unelected citizens, including church leaders, to question government’s public rationale and private purpose, to correct the misperceptions, and to espouse rational and coherent policies that do less harm to vulnerable people and to our peace and security. We would all profit from more respectful and rigorous dialogue between elected politicians and unelected community leaders, including that between church and state.

Church leaders like Archbishop Carnley, the courts, the Senate, an independent media, and a robust civil society are entitled to express a view contrary to the executive government of the day, even if the majority are satisfied that the government will do what is best for ‘us’ (as against ‘them’) in tough times. The morality of our engagement in the Iraq war cannot be left contingent only on self-interested outcomes; one, whether our special relationship with the US bears fruit, and two, whether we are more immune from onshore terrorist attack. And even if it were so contingent, the jury is still out on both counts. A more coherent morality of war may yet be even in our own short-term national interest in an ‘age of terror’.  

Frank Brennan sj is the Associate Director of UNIYA, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre. His most recent book is Tampering with Asylum, 2003, University of Queensland Press.



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