Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West

"I told Lana that were getting closer to George Orwell's 1984". Unsolicited comment from youngest daughter (17) in response to a story on Dr Haneef.

This will, I fear, be rather a mixed up post. The post was in fact written over two, now three, days as I wrestled with the issues. I hope that the post will be helpful even to those who disagree with me.

On 25 July I put up a post in which I expressed concern about, among other things, the increasing legalism now affecting Australian society. My concern was captured in a quote from Tacitus. When the republic is at its most corrupt, the laws are most numerous.

On 30 July I discussed the Haneef case. I was very careful not to discuss the evidence or the specific arguments about Dr Haneef's guilt or innocence. My message was summarised in the title of the post: Haneef Case: a failure in compassion and common sense.

My core point was that the failures in the case linked to the way the matter was handled, that there had been a fundamental failure in the way the case had been approached and presented, not just in the legal processes themselves.

This post continues the argument.

Origination of the Word Terrorism

To refresh my memory, I checked the derivation of the word. Here I find : 1795, in specific sense of "government intimidation during the Reign of Terror in France" (1793-July 1794), from Fr. terrorisme (1798).

So terrorism started of with a revolutionary Government. The item goes on:
General sense of "systematic use of terror as a policy" is first recorded in English. 1798. Terrorize "coerce or deter by terror" first recorded 1823. Terrorist in the modern sense dates to 1947, especially in reference to Jewish tactics against the British in Palestine -- earlier it was used of extremist revolutionaries in Russia (1866); and Jacobins during the French Revolution (1795) ... The tendency of one party's terrorist to be another's guerilla or freedom fighter was noted in ref. to the British action in Cyprus (1956) and the war in Rhodesia (1973).
The core reason for terrorism, the deliberate use of fear in a state context, was well captured by Robespierre in a speech in the French National Convention in 1794.
If the basis of a popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is virtue and terror -- virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.
This actually captures rather well many of the elements of modern terrorism at both state and now non-state level, the use of terror as a political weapon justified by and linked to a claimed virtuous cause.

Terrorism is Not New

I think that it is helpful to remember, as suggested by the previous section, that terrorism is not new.
The world was plunged into the First World War by the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

More recently, just to select a few examples, we have had the Stern Gang in Palestine, a group celebrated by many in modern Israel. A little later there was the Red Brigade. In the first ten years of the group's existence, the Red Brigades were credited with 14,000 acts of violence, most of which were against defenseless people on the street. Then, too, we have had the IRA.

This is just a short history. Many of those classified as terrorists - the Israelis, the PLO, Libya and IRA are examples - are now (to use an Australian phrase) more or less inside the tent. Others, the Red Brigade, have been relegated to the dust heap of history.

In each case, the established order has had to deal with the challenge.

The Use of Coercive State Power

The established order has always responded to any challenge to its authority through the application of state power. We can see this in the Stasi in East Germany, the Gestapo or ASIO in Australia.

In saying this, I am not saying that the application of coercive power by these bodies is the same. Clearly it is not. To put ASIO or the Federal Police as arms of the state in the same class as the Stasi or the Gestapo would be absurd. But the techniques, including the collection and use of information, are. It is the use to which those techniques are put, the limitations placed upon them, that are different.

Part of the problem with the application of coercive state power is that it creates victims.

Take as a simple and clear cut example, the internment in Australia of those from enemy countries during the first and second world wars. This was a time of clear national threat. There was a fear, not without reason, of spies and saboteurs. Yet it is also true that the internment victimised tens of thousands of innocent people loyal to Australia whose only crime was their country of origin.

Part of the problem with the application of coercive state power is that it is also open to misuse.
My study of history, as well as my experiences in and with Government, suggest that all Governments have a tendency to misuse state power. This is especially true at times of national fear or even hysteria.
The reasons for this are simple and lie in the dynamics of power itself.

All Governments come to believe that they are right, that they know best. Sometimes they are right. More often, history shows that they were not. The difficulty is that in pursuing their objectives and then in defending their position, Governments become victims of their own thinking and rhetoric. They then go a step too far. This is most likely to happen where, as has been the case in Australia, Government actions coincide with the public mood.

In all this, the thing that distinguishes an Australia from a Nazi Germany or Stalin's USSR is the existence of checks and balances inside and outside Government that constrain the use of state power.

In the middle of the second world war when the threat to Australia was real and immediate, newspaper proprietors fought Government moves on censorship. While the proprietors' business interests were involved, there was also the in-principle argument of the public's right to know.

In the midst of the anti-communist hysteria of the immediate post war period, public opposition prevented the Menzies Government banning the Communist Party. In retrospect, we now know that the Soviet Government was far more active in Australia than left wing apologists at the time would allow. Yet it is also clear that the banning of the Communist Party, something sought on national interest grounds for state protection, would have had no positive impact on subsequent developments.

The Principal of Proportionality

One key principle that should guide Government action is that the response should be proportional to the challenge or threat. To my mind, the response to terrorism is now so grossly out of proportion to the threat that it has itself become a threat.

Put the threat aside and focus on the pattern of responses since the bombing of the twin towers.
Internationally, the bombing triggered the invasion of Afghanistan. Then we had the invasion of Iraq. Iraq dissolved into a chaos that drew its neighbours in.

The fragile peace in Lebanon collapsed under the pressure of war. Palestine dissolved into total chaos. Now we have a middle east arms race designed to contain the rising threat posed by Iran.

Domestically, Governments and their state agencies moved to put new controls in place to counter the threat.
Detention without trial. New forms of surveillance. Control orders. Detention camps. Torture. Internment. The language itself has changed to reflect the new realities, including the use of techniques such as torture or forced interrogation previously the domain of feared secret police.

Governments cooperated in information exchange. New international controls come in. Prisoners are shifted between states to meet the exigencies of war. New international alliances form as support is given to regimes that will support the cause.

In all this, the threat seems to become stronger. There are new bombings, triggering new responses. The "war on terror" itself becomes part of the equation by creating a new focus for those opposed to what they see as the corruption of the west.

Martys breed martys. The concept of home grown terrorists appears. The enemy outside becomes the enemy within. The initially much diminished threat of Al Quaeda morphes into Al Quaeda in Iraq. More controls are required.

What began as a "war on terror", a response to a terrorist attack by a small but well organised group, has turned into real war fought on a number of fronts involving hundreds if not thousands of casualties each day, mainly innocent civilians.

It has also become a technology war.

War always drives the development of technology.

Those involved in terrorist activities have been able to use the new computing and telecommunications technology to contact each other, to spread information and as a PR weapon. Here they use internet technology not just to instill fear in Western countries - a necessary requirement since this drives the Government responses they need to spread their cause - but also to recruit. In some ways, Al Quaeda has become the web 2.0 version of terrorism.

Those involved in terrorism have also been able to develop new, simple, destructive weapons to kill or maim, using our own systems, technology and fears against us. Their capacity to do so is enhanced by media reporting that facilitates the spread of knowledge about both successes and failures.

On the Government side, the war on terror has encouraged the development of technologies used in monitoring, surveillance, control. All this gives the state far greater power to monitor and control its citizens. That's fine, but only so long as we can trust the state not to misuse the power. And the evidence world wide is that we cannot.And all for what?

I visited London during the height of the IRA bombings and admired the way in which people went about their daily business. People were, to use the Australian Government's slogan, alert but not alarmed.

Today, the chances of any single Australian being killed in Australia or elsewhere in a terrorist attack is statistically very small. By contrast, the chances of dying from flue, including the statistically significant chance of a pandemic, are many, many, times higher. Yet people do not run around obsessing about flue risks.

Governments do not feel obliged to use coercive state power on a daily basis to try to prevent the problem.
Terrorism seems to have created a blue funk, a failure in moral courage, in Western countries.

The Rise of the Authoritarian State

While all Governments have authoritarian tendencies, the last three decades have seen to my mind a remarkable rise in state authoritarianism in Australia. Governments do less for their people, but attempt to control more. This control permeates every activity and every level of society.

Take teaching.

In the bad old days, State Governments set curriculum and then used inspectors to go round and enforce standards. The system was seen as far too rigid, centralised and authoritarian. The inspector could be a figure of some fear. Yet individual teachers faced relatively clear requirements and within those requirements could exercise a degree of freedom.

Today teachers and schools operate within a web of laws, regulations, instructions, controls, policy statements, protocols, procedures, reporting arrangements and guidelines that make the old NSW Department of Public Instruction in its worst days look like a model of administrative simplicity. No wonder most schools now require staff just to ensure that the school complies with rules and reporting requirements!
This expansion of control has been associated with a progressive break down in the checks and balances that used to constrain Government.

To my mind, the starting point here has been the decline in community knowledge of our own history, a process that began in the seventies and has accelerated since. By our history I do not mean Australian history, the current Howard Government obsession, but the broad sweep of British history of which Australia forms a small part.
Our institutions, including the relations between Government and people, are based in that history. Forget it, and you are likely to lose sight of the fact that our freedoms were not given to us, but were fought for over generation after generation. British history is in fact the story of the rise of individual freedom in the face of establishment and state opposition.

This is not a small point. Our government system has always depended in part on knowledge of the past, on unwritten rules and conventions that set a context for Government operations. Take the decline in the power and authority of parliaments, another of the checks and balances, as an example.

I have a great reverence for parliament and for parliamentarians. Parliament, not the executive or government, is our peak governing body.

This is why I have voted so often for the Democrats, why I regard the decline in the Democrats as a national tragedy, even though my traditional affiliations are elsewhere. The Democrats with Don Chipp's famous slogan, keep the bastards honest, have focused on parliament's role as a check on executive government. This has been sadly lost sight off by others in the rise of executive government.

When I first joined the Commonwealth Public Service the role of parliament was still central. Governments in control still felt bound by the conventions of parliament and parliamentary democracy. This is no longer true. The instinctive reverence for parliament has been lost. So, too, has community understanding of and respect for parliament. Parliament has become at best something to be got around, at worst a rubber stamp.

The Howard Government

The Howard Government has taken the authoritarian state in Australia to a new level.

John Howard is a populist. So am I, although I come from a different tradition, the New England tradition. But populism unconstrained by principles can be a dangerous beast.

Mr Howard talks about the Australian people to justify his actions. The Australian people, he suggests, are not interested in esoteric principles. They want protection and effective service delivery. Fair enough, they do. However, the desire to control is so central to this Government's actions that it has become a threat.
We can, I think, see this across the whole range of Government actions.

In a post I wrote last November on the High Court decision on Work Choices, I noted that Mr Howard had said that concerns that about the impact of the decision were unfounded. The states should have no fears. The Commonwealth had no desire to take over state powers. It would only do so if it were in "the national interest" or to achieve a "public good". I went on:

From experience, I have absolutely no doubt that Commonwealth Governments of all political persuasions will attempt to use the now established power. It would be silly to think otherwise. The very words the Prime Minister uses - in the national interest, in the public good - indicate this since these matters are very much in the eye of the beholder.
Since then we have seen a steady stream of direct interventions by the Commonwealth in State affairs. We can argue the rights and wrongs of individual interventions. My point is that there is now a clear pattern of Howard Government action in which the constitution has become little more than a legal document to be got around as required.


The desire to control is central to these direct interventions. We can see this across portfolios from education through health to housing, to aboriginal affairs and social welfare. The pattern is quite clear cut.

Working in the name of national standards, national uniformity, national protection, the Howard Government has sought to intervene in every aspect of national life and at every level. As the election approaches, the interventions have become increasingly random, driven by electoral exigencies. The checks and balances inside Government - the role of cabinet, the role of Treasury and Finance in controlling expenditure, the consultation and coordination procedures - appear to have broken down.

In border protection and terrorism, our fear and concern has allowed creeping breaches of our fundamental rights. Note that I am not saying that terrorism is not a problem. I am saying that our response is not proportional to the size of the threat.

This creeping process has been marked by injustices against individuals. Australians have been wrongly deported or interned. The concept of innocence until proven guilty has been lost sight of in the need to protect. The harsh rhetoric required to justify actions and ever increasing powers has become more pervasive. The coercive and protective instruments of the state have themselves become players as police commissioners plead for more powers.

In all this, and I think that this is a tragedy, there has been growing mistrust not just of Government, but of the institutions and agencies on which we depend for our protection and security.

A measure of distrust is always healthy. Many believed during the 1950s and 1960s that they were being monitored by ASIO and indeed we now know that they were. Having a dossier from this period has even become a matter of some pride. Yet past a certain point, distrust becomes a problem.

Like many Australians, I accepted Government conclusions that Saddam Hussein did indeed have weapons of mass destruction. We now know that there was a catastrophic failure not just of intelligence, but of the treatment of intelligence information.

The advice the Government provided the Australian people on Tampa to support its actions was wrong. This was clearly a system failure. Now we have the problems with the Haneef material. I am afraid that I have reached the stage that I look for the errors whenever the Government or its agencies says trust us, we have secret material. Trust I do not
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Nor can we trust either Government or its agencies to treat us fairly as individuals. There have been just too many cases where Government or agencies has broken the civil compact underlying out system.
To me, the Haneef case was the final straw here. Now when I look at Mr Keelty still pursuing the matter in public, this is a different issue from the proper continuance of investigations, I feel like saying take a cold shower, get some balance.

In recent weeks both Mr Keelty and the NSW Police Commissioner have been pleading the case for more police powers. Immediate past experience makes me very distrustful. Putting this aside, I apply two tests to these requests.

Test one is to ask what would happen if we did not grant the request. Generally my conclusion is nothing. That is, the extra powers would have little real impact in terms of the objectives as defined.

Test two is to ask whether I would want Government to have these powers in a less benign environment. It may sound odd to use the word benign when I have just been so critical. But whatever our current weaknesses, we still live in a democratic system in which Governments can be removed without violence.
We cannot assume that this will continue.

Once powers are ceeded to Government, they tend to remain. The decision by a protestor all those years ago to throw an egg at Prime Minister Billy Hughes gave us the Federal Police. Once powers are there, Governments will use them.

To suggest that Australian might become a dictatorship seems absurd. Yet if I had told an Australian even forty years ago just what current Governments would do I would have been laughed at. Extrapolate current trends and and a totally authroitarian state seems possible.

I am not saying that this will happen. I am saying that the price of liberty remains eternal vigilance.

6 comments:

Davo said...

Interesting post, and much to ponder.

There is one of those "blog buttons" floating about that says .. "I love my country .. it's the Government that am afraid of" or something similar. Must find it again.

And thinking about "authoritarianism".. I wonder where the pending "Australia Card" and the establishment of the new AFP "Paramilitary force" fits in to all of this.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Davo. Not sure about the AFP. I was not aware that they were setting up a paramilitary style unit.

The point about all the national identification systems is that they make it easier for Governments to track citizens. If you protest, the answer is always if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear.

Okay, but the definition of what is wrong shifts all the time. I have no idea just what will be defined as wrong in the future.

Davo said...

This story is the one that I find somewhat disturbing. Seems to have come and gone with little notice amid all the kerfuffle about hospitals and stuff.

Davo said...

.. and my mention of it is here.
haven't really thought very much about the ramifications, and yes, they do say "International"deployment, but one presumes it will be based in Australia .. ready for any "civil unrest".

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the additional comments Davo and the links.

The move by the AFP to set up such a unit actually makes sense because of our role in regional peace keeping, something I have written about.

The problem is, as you point out, that we then have to worry about their local deployment.

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