After five years of doing hard time at the Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks will get his day in court soon. That’s the only message to be gleaned from the fact that the Attorney-General Philip Ruddock is paying him a visit and will ask the Yanks to get a wriggle on regarding its treatment of Hicks.

But don’t be conned into thinking that the changed stance by the Australian government has anything to do with the legalities or ethics of Hicks’s detention. It is all about pragmatics. The Australian government has known all along that Hicks’s detention was illegal. It did not criticise the US simply because it took the view that the welfare of Hicks wasn’t worth a diplomatic stoush with our closest foreign ally – the US.

They Howard government was right not to risk souring our relationship with the US by throwing a hissy fit at the treatment of a citizen who preferred to spend his spare time training with terrorists rather than watching the footy.

When the global stakes are high, international law goes out the door. The US locked up Hicks and more than 400 hundred prisoners without trial in Guantanamo Bay for over five years for two reasons. First, because it wanted to make an example of them – get on the wrong side of the “war on terror” and you’ll come to regret it. Secondly, it kept them there because it could.

Given that the Federal Government is now publicly making comments that Hicks should be dealt with in the foreseeable future, you can be pretty confident that it has had high level diplomatic representations from the US that it has no more use for Hicks. They’ve punished him enough; lesson taught, he can go home soon.

That’s not to be critical of the Federal government. It is regrettable that Hicks has been treated so poorly by the US. But as usual, pragmatism wins the day. War is a terrible thing, especially because it always causes high levels of collateral damage. The war on terror has resulted in more than 50,000 Iraqi civilians alone being killed.

Another form of collateral damage that often happens in wars is that suspected enemy combatants do more than their fair share of hard time. Yet, in the big scheme of things, the harm sustained by Hicks is piffle compared to the tens of thousands who have lost their lives.

It is no response to suggest that we should show more compassion to the plight of Hicks than the other victims of the war of terror. That would be downright racism – Aussie lives are no more important than those of Iraqis.

So yes, Hicks deserves a bit of sympathy, but relatively speaking it is a negligible amount – certainly not enough to merit the near saturation media coverage that he has been receiving.

Peter Fray

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