Have you rung the terrorist hotline yet? Your fellow Australians have: 80,000 times since its establishment three and a half years ago, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock announced last week. That’s an average of 440 calls a week. Actual terrorist incidents over the same period: zero.

ASIO and the Australian Federal Police and state and territory police services “regularly use information from the hotline to piece together intelligence pictures to assist investigationsm”, said Ruddock. Sounds impressive, but is it? Has any one of the 80,000 calls to the national terrorist hotline led to an arrest or contributed to the foiling of a terrorist incident in the making?

For the first time last week I wondered, momentarily, if I should call the hotline. A young man approached me on the street asking for directions to 1100 Empire Circuit. I was in Canberra, the nation’s capital – an obvious terror target. He was a stranger. What’s more, he was a swarthy stranger with a mid-Atlantic accent: kind of Peshawar via Berkeley. Educated but wandering around a Canberra suburb on foot in the cold, searching for a street number in Empire Circuit which any local would know doesn’t exist. 1100 is the kind of number you get on Washington street addresses, not Canberra ones. Washington: another terror target.

“I’ve been there before,” he told me. “The Thai Embassy. Someone’s taken me there before.” A swarthy (but not Thai) stranger with a mid-Atlantic accent looking for the Thai Embassy at an address with a Washington-style street number which doesn’t exist. Hmm.

I got the street directory out of the car and tried to explain how to get to the Thai Embassy. After a couple of fruitless attempts to explain a safe route I looked at him and, guilty that the government’s alert but not alarmed line was involuntarily intruding into my thoughts, offered him a lift.

On the way there my verve at the wheel may well have had him in fear of his life, at least until a call to his mobile phone demanded attention. “I’m looking for the Thai Embassy,” he told the caller. “They are busy,” he said in response, presumably, to a query from the caller about why he was doing so. “It is my challenge today to find it.”

It was his parents, he explained later, calling from Pakistan. He was supposed to meet them in Thailand for a holiday, and had to go to the Thai Embassy concerning the travel arrangements. Right. Meeting his “parents” for a “holiday” in Thailand. Thailand, where Jemaah Islamiah (JI) are active and, for all I know, where the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) hang out too. And it’s his “challenge” today to work out where the Thai Embassy in Canberra is. And he’s in my car.

I dropped him outside the Thai Embassy (111 Empire Circuit), took a careful look at his rather pleasant face and drove away. Was this the smiling face that I might see as a suspect in wanted bulletins if western targets in Bangkok were blown up in coming days? Unlikely.

In her new book Fear and Politics, Carmen Lawrence describes the physiological impact of fear on the human body: muscles tense, blood pressure rises, stress hormones are released. I experienced all of that after I dropped the mystery stranger off, but not from fear. It was out of anger. Anger that the government’s success in playing with our minds, even my mind, on the security front had let me overcompensate in relation to the lost young man’s plight and do a truly stupid thing: let a complete stranger into my car.

Terrorism is a genuine possibility in Australia. ASIO and the AFP have done a good job so far in dealing with it, as attested by the lack of devastating attacks like those suffered by ordinary citizens in Bali, New York, Washington, London and Madrid.

But the terrorist hotline is another matter – cynical politics in the name of mustering votes to our khaki-clad prime minister. The 63 or so calls a day to the terrorist hotline are an index of the Government’s success in keeping the nation on heat about terrorism, all for political advantage. Fortunately, they haven’t got to everyone.

Riding my bike through Manuka on Saturday morning, wearing a balaclava under my helmet to keep out the cold, three teenage boys gave me a look.

“Excuse me,” one said. “Are you a terrorist?”

“Yes,” I replied riding by. “You better ring that number!”

“What number?” came his genuinely mystified reply.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey