In the aftermath of 9/11, it is estimated that 1.4 million Americans chose to drive instead of fly, because they assessed the risk of getting on a plane to have multiplied many times. As a result, about 1000 extra people died on the roads.

It is precisely this human tendency to miscalculate risk, focusing on the spectacular but extremely unlikely event while ignoring the everyday causes of harm with infinitely higher probability, which provides the calculus of terrorism.

The point of terrorism, if we need reminding, is to bring us to our knees. It does this by corrupting our sense of reality, by making a risk appear to be existential when it plainly is not. Each of us now carries a fear onto the evening train, one that is unjustified by the probability of danger but rooted deeply in our humanity. Terrorism is not an attack on our freedoms; it seeks to paralyse our capacity to function altogether.

The Prime Minister is right when he says that terrorism is an evolving threat, but that’s obvious. The choice of weapons and techniques is merely a function of imagination; if you just want to kill some people and terrorise everyone else, there are no boundaries or rules of possibility. The Prime Minister’s solution, that our response must evolve too, has a pretty obvious flaw.

When UK Prime Minister Theresa May says “enough is enough,” we all understand the sentiment and the agonised frustration driving her. Terrorism in its current, distributed form is impossible to combat. That bitter reality causes us, and those who speak for our fears, to think and express evermore creative iterations of the same thing, which has popped into our heads with each atrocity ever since 9/11: that the gloves must now come off.

There’s a lot of competition these days for the title of Politician Most Likely to Exploit Terrorism in an Appalling Manner, what with Trump, Farage and Hanson all jumping on the latest London atrocity in a matter of minutes to demonstrate their particular brands of hate. Still, Tony Abbott remains special for his ability to combine clarity with idiocy.

Abbott’s been all over the media since London, just being helpful you know. He has two Big Ideas this time: militarising Australia’s response to terrorist attacks, and creating special courts to deal with suspects. Not new ideas, but they approach the outer edge of a response structure which would ensure that terrorism achieves its ends.

[Our politicians and media are in denial about the cause of terrorism]

Abbott wants the Australian Army to be “the lead agency” in cases of “multiple or complex terrorist incidents”. The vagueness of his prescription is no surprise; the point is its apparent robustness. Not for Abbott any of the constitutional or operational complexities of sending in the troops to deal with what are, when the rhetoric is put aside, crimes of violence rather than acts of war. 

At the base of this idea is a simple but very fundamental shift: from law enforcement to state-sanctioned killing. Soldiers are trained and authorised to deal with threats by eliminating them. That’s really what Abbott’s calling for.

It is not inappropriate for the policy response to terrorism to include a low-tolerance “shoot to kill” response to actual terrorist acts. However, low tolerance and zero tolerance are two different things. Civil law enforcement has the flexibility and legal authority to maintain a balance between the various modes of engagement, up to and including elimination of a threat with attendant risk of collateral harm. It’s just dangerously wrong to pretend that the military can do the same. When you call in the army, you’re at war and playing for keeps. That is not something to do lightly on your own soil among your own populace. Abbott is being typically irresponsible in suggesting that it’s an easy fix.

More insidious however is the call for “special courts”. This has been echoed by retired general Jim Molan, who has called for a tribunal to be created that can detain a suspect in circumstances where the police have, for example, “heard a recording of him doing something, or we see him on the internet proposing something, associating with people, but we can’t use that evidence because it doesn’t meet evidentiary standards in a civilian court”.

In Abbott’s words, “We need to ensure returning jihadi can readily be charged and convicted, possibly through the creation of special courts that can hear evidence that may not normally be admissible.”

Frustration with the criminal court system and its insistence on evidence and the presumption of innocence is predictable and understandable in the emotional atmosphere that terrorism necessarily generates. The Prime Minister appeared genuinely exasperated in asking why the Melbourne terror suspect was out on parole. Nobody understands why Man Haron Monis, the Lindt cafe killer, was on bail at the time. I certainly don’t.

It is frustrating, maddening sometimes. The protections that the rule of law affords us all, engineered to ensure that we can’t under any circumstances lose our liberty unjustly, serve also in many cases to protect the guilty. For terrorists, it’s just icing on the cake that the society they seek to undermine is often so accommodating to their plans.

[Can Australia keep terrorists in prison forever]

So, of course we’d prefer to lock them up and throw away the key, bugger their civil rights. Or shoot them in the head and bury them at sea, Osama-like.  Retributive justice is very satisfying when you know for sure you’ve got the right bad guy.

If only that were the way the world really worked. Law enforcement has been unable to predict which one of the thousands of young men it is constantly watching is about to do something unspeakable. It will always be so unable, that has to be obvious.

Putting aside the thought of addressing the root causes of terrorist intent, because that isn’t going to happen so why bother talking about it, we can at least contemplate the practicalities of our response. Political leaders like May and Turnbull are turning up the dial now, saying we must fight fire with fire. More powers, more laws, more surveillance, more detention, more infringements of everyone’s freedom in the name of freedom. At the fringe of the debate, Abbott calls for what really amounts to a combination of the re-institution of the Star Chamber and martial law.

Nobody appears to be thinking about the end point of this escalation. Terrorists will continue to be inventive in their varietal approach to mass murder.  Governments will continue to acquiesce to the push that they clamp down ever harder, to prevent the terror before it occurs, to keep us safe.  The end point of that dual escalation of terror and repression is not obvious, because it doesn’t exist.  Both sides can continue forever.

Jim Molan, asked if what he’s really calling for is internment, ran a mile from the word: “internment has an appalling name, has an appalling back story to it. It’s got a smell about it you can’t jump over. I believe it is detention without trial, based on a lower standard of proof of evidence.” In other words, internment.

The terrorists, if you hadn’t noticed, are winning.

Peter Fray

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