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Dr Carmen Lawrence with representatives of Labor for Refugees Victoria

Dr Carmen Lawrence's Freilich Foundation lectures

Fear and Public Policy

Former WA Premier, past President for the ALP and the Federal member for Fremantle Dr Carmen Lawrence was the Fourth Freilich Foundation Eminent Lecturer in 2005 at The Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation.

Dr Lawrence generously supplied the lectures to us for publication - they are brought together in a series of four pages. Below are links to the other three lectures.

Related pages:

1 January 2007: The Gifts of Carmen Lawrence - The number of contributions from Carmen to the national debate, also but not only about Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, has kept growing, also on our website - this was the reason we constructed this page to bring all pages, all gifts from Dr Carmen Lawrence together.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Relaxed and Comfortable? | - I will attempt to chart the consequences of the exploitation of fear on the Australian body politic. As the title suggests, I will place this in the context of asking whether the objective Howard set himself as he approached government in 1996 has been realised.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of Crime | - The last twenty years have seen a sustained campaign on law and order, with the result that people now have wildly exaggerated, and fearful perceptions of the risks of assault, murder, child abuse and robbery.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of the Other | - One of the reasons offered for adopting democracy as a system of government is people's desire to be protected from state-sponsored fear - fear of persecution and death, arbitrary theft of property and discrimination.

Lecture Three: Fear of Annihilation

The Fourth Freilich Foundation Eminent Lecturer
Dr Carmen Lawrence, MP
5 October 2005


As I suggested in an earlier lecture, fear is arguably the most powerful of our emotions, acting as an alarm to indicate the presence of a threat and to stimulate us to respond to save ourselves from damage, destruction, and death.

While we do not need to learn how to feel fear, we learn what to fear. And our fears can be manipulated by those who hold power to maintain that power. They can also be aroused and exploited by those without power in order to gain it. Fear is, amongst other things, a method of social control.

Humans are unique in being aware of their vulnerability to sudden death and the inevitability of their certain mortality, of their annihilation. As Becker argued in Denial of Death:

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else.

Rather than living with the discomfort of constant anxiety and fear of this inevitability, we learn to employ a range of psychological defence mechanisms to keep such fear at bay. When these techniques are overwhelmed, we may relinquish our autonomy in order to gain protection from others believed to have the resources and power to protect us. Excessive fear can create a pervading sense of powerlessness. When we are extremely afraid, surviving at any cost may become our top priority and we may, at that moment, be willing to do almost anything; rational thought is overwhelmed. If we are frightened enough, we will even be willing to give up our freedom.

Ours is an age in which fear appears to be a major driving force; the "logic of our times", as one commentator put it, "never mind the evidence, just focus on the possibility"; there is a general tendency to exaggerate worst-case scenarios. This mind set is exemplified in a report carried in The Financial Times in January 2003 about the supposed discovery of the chemical agent ricin in a London flat. An official was quoted as saying, "There is a very serious threat out there still that chemicals that have not been found may be used by people who have yet to be identified."

Fear has become the dominant currency of modern public life - fear about security, about obesity, about flu pandemics, about paedophiles, about flesh eating viruses and so on and so on. We almost expect some dark new apocalypse every day. While fear might begin with the things we fear, "over time, with enough repetition and expanded use, it becomes a way of looking at life."1


We're told that biggest risk to our safety comes from terrorists who might attack us at any moment. And we have enough recent examples of attacks on people going about their daily lives in societies like ours - and on the weekend in Bali - to know that such threats are real. Although we don't know how likely they are to occur in Australia. Just last week the Prime Minister and Premiers gathered to devise even more draconian laws following the London bombings, ostensibly to protect us from such threats, while insisting that the threat level has actually not increased since that time.

(The intelligence sources used to justify these laws are the same ones which gave us the discredited information about the imminent threat we faced from weapons of mass destruction emanating from Iraq).

In all this panic, not much attention is given to examining the meaning of terrorism and the character of terrorist acts or to trying to gain some perspective on the nature of the damage that terrorist acts inflict.

Attempts to come to grips with the precise meaning of terrorism almost always founder on the difficulty of distinguishing terrorism from criminal violence or military action. It is also true that it is a label is usually applied by states to their violent opponents rather than to states themselves, although recent history is replete with examples of states employing "terror", violence and intimidation of their own citizens in order to maintain and strengthen power.

Sadly, terrorism is nothing new. The world is all too familiar with its visage. It was once called guerrilla warfare in honour of the Spanish, who used it to considerable effect against Napoleon. It was the tactic of choice in many of the struggles against colonial powers after the second world war, including by Israelis blowing up hotels to get rid of the British, by Algerians developing nail bombs to attack the French, by the IRA, and by the Basque separatists, to name a few. Some of these groups finally formed governments themselves - rebels like Mandela and Nehru, accused of terrorism, became respected statesmen. All the major powers today have at some time supported - and armed - insurrectionists who used methods that would be labelled terrorism if used by others. It is a matter of public record that the CIA helped supply and train Osama bin Laden's groups to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan.

Recently enacted Australian legislation defines a terrorist act as an action or threat of action made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause with the intention of coercing a government or intimidating the public.

A list of prescribed acts then follows, all of which are already rendered illegal by other statutes. In reality no government has succeeded in precisely identifying such actions in ways which distinguish them from acts already prohibited by law - setting off bombs, hostage taking etc. As historian Charles Townshend pithily concludes, "terrorism is a state of mind rather than an activity."2

In comparing the risk posed by terrorism with that from everyday dangers, political scientist John Mueller 3 contends that the evidence is that "for all the attention it evokes, terrorism actually causes rather little damage and the likelihood that any individual will become a victim in most places is microscopic." While the consequences of such attacks are clearly deeply tragic for those who are directly involved, the fact is that the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally a few hundred a year, a tiny number compared to the many who die in civil wars or in automobile accidents.

It's instructive that the fear of flying which, unsurprisingly, infected a great many Americans after September 11, actually led to an additional 1200 road deaths in the following months because people took to the roads in droves. It would take one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks from flying to equal the risks from driving in the United States4.U.S. data show that even including deaths in 2001, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 60s is about the same as the number killed over the same period by lighting strikes.

Like other risk analysts who've examined the question, Mueller concludes that, assessed in a broad context, "terrorism does not do much damage" but that "the costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions."

It is not the acts themselves or even the damage they actually do, but their intended political function that is relevant here. And the intended political function is to evoke fear among citizens; part of that fear is that the government may be unable to ensure their security, a fear which can undermine the legitimacy of government.

The essence of terrorism is the readiness to attack apparently random targets - in markets, in trains, in restaurants, in office blocks. Clearly the intention of the perpetrators is to seize public attention by the brutal and horrific nature of the attacks and to generate high levels of fear and anxiety in order to achieve certain political objectives. In terms of lives lost, the impact of terrorist acts is usually relatively small, but the psychological impact can be massive, particularly if the attacks are carried out by suicide bombers whose desire to kill others is greater than his own will to live. How can you possibly deter a suicide bomber?

The grisly, spectacular violence - the mass killings, the suicide bombings, the video-beheadings - this violence is designed for the media age. Such attacks are carefully calculated by their perpetrators to provoke powerful dread - and an over-reaction. And the biggest facilitators of this collective alarmism are often the media and politicians bent on securing, respectively, their own ratings and political ascendancy. There is a huge temptation, currently being succumbed to by both major parties, to pander to and amplify the public's anxiety and concern in order to achieve electoral advantage - or at least to prevent the loss of ground. They appear determined to outdo each other in "toughness". More considered, proportional responses are swamped by the panic to do something - anything - to look like they are providing security.

The "War on Terror"

The most egregious example of this tendency was the alacrity with which our own government and media adopted without question the "War on Terror" slogan as a representation of how we should respond to these threats. There are grave dangers in accepting this characterisation of what should be done.

The "War on Terror" phrase was obviously a deliberate choice by U.S. administration to give maximum political advantage. After all, a nation at war can be galvanised to give unqualified and unquestioning support for its government and war can be used as a justification for almost anything including the flouting of basic human rights standards such as we have seen at Guantanamo Bay.

The concept of a "war on terror" has now become so pervasive that we barely notice its impact or question its ramifications, let alone examine its validity. It has been picked up even by those who opposed its use to justify the attack on Iraq. Our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister frequently invoke it to reinforce their message that Australia should focus on security above all else.

In opening a new national "Threat Assessment Centre" last year, Howard said that Australia should settle in for a long struggle in the "war on terror" and that:

This is a struggle will go on for a long time and regrettable though it is to say it, we have to settle down for a very long struggle. I hope it doesn't last as long as the Cold War. I certainly hope it doesn't. But it's something that isn't going to be easily dealt with.

But as Paul Dibb, former director of the Australian government's Joint Intelligence Organisation, cautions us:

Let's not pretend that the threat from terrorism is as dangerous to the survival of the U.S. or Australia as nuclear war with the Soviet Union (which was a real prospect in the early 80s). Our calculations in the Cold War were that a full-scale nuclear exchange would involve at least 300 million deaths on each side in a matter of hours, and that the U.S. and the Soviet Union would completely cease to exist as modern functioning societies. The terrorists are not capable of doing that.

An additional problem, as many have pointed out, is that "you can't have a War on Terrorism, any more than you can have a War on the Hand Grenade, or a War on the .303 or a War on the Bowie Knife, or a War on Greek Fire. You can't have a war on a method of war."5 Even analysis from the government funded "Australian Strategic Policy Institute" concludes that "The war on terror isn't a war and it's not against terrorism in general."6

Ronald Spiers, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Turkey and Pakistan and as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence, put it equally bluntly 7

The problem is that terrorism is a tool - a weapon - not an actor. Like war, terrorism is the use of violence by groups or individuals to advance a political objective.

But how do you win a war against a tool that like war itself, is a method of carrying on politics by other means? A "war on terrorism" is a war without end in sight, without an exit strategy, with enemies specified not by their aims but by their tactics. Relying principally on military means is like trying to eliminate a cloud of mosquitoes with a machine gun.

He goes on to say:

In truth the misery and poverty, the oppression, injustice and despair in which most terrorism is spawned and simmers can only be overcome through protracted political, economic and social efforts on the part of the whole international community.

When people talk or write about a "war on terrorism, or more bizarrely about a "war on terror" it's not clear what they're actually talking about. Who is the adversary? When will it be over? How do you measure success? How do you decide you have won?

There are other risks in accepting the all encompassing and amorphous concept of a "war on terror." Writing in The Nation, Greider finds the enormity of the summons to open-ended war now more obvious than it was when Bush first announced that the U.S. - and, inevitably, Australia - was at war. Greider questions what he calls "the brilliantly seductive political message" that "terror pre-empts everything else".

No one denies that the deaths of so many on September 11 2001 and in Bali are shocking and tragic. No one could remain unmoved by the indiscriminate carnage in Madrid and London of, for that matter, in Darfur and Iraq and Jakarta and countless other forgotten places. Who could fail but be rendered mute by the homicidal resolution of the bombers - "I am right; you are dead", as the poet Wole Soyinka so succinctly captures their viewpoint.8

But this makes it all the more important that we act soberly and sensibly to seek justice and to minimise the likelihood of such attacks in the future. Sceptics about the validity of waging a "war on terror" should not be silenced by a "shallow sense of unity" emerging from "shared vulnerabilities."

There were a few brave souls who demurred when it first appeared that the U.S. would adopt the war frame as a basis for its response to the murders on September 11, 2001. Defence analyst Net Crawford, for example, warned just three days after the twin towers were destroyed of the hazards of massive retaliation9.

"Retaliation does not work", she wrote, reminding her readers that it hadn't worked in Israel or Palestine or in previous U.S. retaliation against terrorists. She argued that many people wrongly assume that those who are attacked in retaliation will be afraid, and those who are fearful and injured back down. On the contrary, she suggested with considerable prescience, "the response of terrorists is just a likely to be increased resolve" and thus "the cycle of violence will be stoked if the U.S. responds to this violence with aggressive military action". She was especially chary of proposals which would result in the annihilation of so many innocent people as well as the perpetrators; a position she regarded as morally reprehensible - as I do - and almost certain "to sow the seeds of future resentment and terrorist acts in retaliation."

Instead she suggested that the U.S. should treat these events as crimes against humanity and use the full apparatus of the International Criminal Court, as well as U.S. law enforcement and judicial system, to bring those responsible to justice. This is what was done in Indonesia after the first Bali and Jakarta bombings, in Madrid and in London. The reflex lashing out in retaliation, in a period of heightened fear, has been entirely counterproductive. The answer to violence is not an escalation of violence. We should resist diving into the "cesspool of fanaticism"10 dug by the bombers.

Using the war frame to respond to the threat of terrorist attacks also means there is no ceiling on the energies and resources devoted to defence and intelligence to confront a "vast, unseen and malignant adversary". As Greider puts it:

The political commodity of fear has no practical limits. The government has the ability to manufacture more. Addressing fear begets more fear. If danger might lurk anywhere, maybe everything must be protected and policed.

Fear should not dictate policy. While it is a technique that may be useful for incumbent politicians, it is an irrational basis for devising our domestic and foreign policy. Indeed an obsessive focus on a "War on Terror" and the fearful response which flows from it are already seriously distorting public policy. I think we must start from the premise that, horrific as they are, the terrorist acts cannot, by themselves, change societies or undermine our values. While inflicting terrible casualties, they cannot have a sustained impact, unless we act in ways which undermine the integrity of our own institutions and amplify the impact of the terrorist attacks.

The "War on Terror" and the Invasion of Iraq

The notion that we must wage a "war on terror" resulted in the pre-emptive strike against Iraq in breach of international law. The Bush, Blair and Howard administrations explicitly used the "War on Terror" slogan as a justification for attacking Iraq. Checking the statements Howard made in the lead up to the war, it is remarkable how frequently he invoked the possibility of Iraq providing "weapons of mass destruction to terrorists." In an interview in the lead up to making public the decision to attack Iraq, Howard asked rhetorically:

Do you just walk away and pretend the problem is not there, leave a rogue state like Iraq with weapons of mass destruction, run the risk that at some time in the future those weapons might find their way into the hands of terrorists?

Similarly, the Australian Government website section headed "War on Terror" contains press releases and transcripts which mostly refer to the attack on Iraq11, as if the two were synonymous.

The Howard government continues to use the concept as a justification for "staying the course", while upbraiding those who would, as they describe it in the degraded idiom of the hawks, "cut and run." The reality is that there was no evidence at the time of the attack of a relationship between the government of Iraq and the terrorists who killed so brutally in the United States and Bali. And a series of reports have subsequently failed to find that such a link ever existed.

But, as a result of the invasion, now there is. We are daily reminded that the attack on Iraq and the bloody chaos of the occupation have created a new breeding ground for recruits to the fanatics' cause. The authoritative International Institute for Strategic Studies recently confirmed that the U.S. - led occupation of Iraq has actually strengthened the Al-Qaeda terrorist network rather than weakened it, increasing the motivation for terrorists and accelerating recruitment.12

It is clear that while Iraq under Saddam Hussein was not a power base for the Al Qaeda movement under the sway of Osama Bin Laden, the catastrophic invasion by the U.S. and its allies has created a power vacuum in which such fanaticism flourishes. The policies of the "Coalition of the Willing" have bred far more terrorists than they have eliminated - and Iraq is undoubtedly a much more dangerous place to live. As U.S. columnist Harold Meyerson wrote recently13, "At great expense in resources and human life, we have substituted one living hell for another in Iraq." He argues that the way things are going, the invasions "will have set in motion a predicable chain of events culminating in both a sphere of terrorist activity and a sub-state allied with the mullahs of Iran."

Although Tony Blair goes into a frothing frenzy when it is suggested, there can be no doubt that the there is a correlation between the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and the murderous attacks in Madrid and London. He may choose to ignore the report of the respected Chatham House that "events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the U.K."14, but that won't make it less true. Any more than our government's denials will remove Australia from the list of countries targeted by Islamist terrorist groups as a result of our participation in the invasion of Iraq.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, was right when he had the temerity to suggest that our involvement in Iraq had actually made us more vulnerable to attack. So were the much maligned 43 former service chiefs and senior diplomats who jointly signed a "Truth in Government" statement before the last election. They were unambiguous:

Because of our Government's unquestioning support for the Bush Administration's policy, Australia has also been adversely affected. Terrorist activity, instead of being contained, has increased. Australia has not become safer by invading and occupying Iraq and now has a higher profile as a terrorist target.

"Staying the course" as a part of an occupying force is simply prolonging the agony for the Iraqis and fuelling the engine of fanaticism, while dealing with none of the underlying problems. There's a certain obscenity in the Howard government, having contributed to the acceleration of terrorism in Iraq, then demanding that other governments should sacrifice more of their citizens so as not to "embolden" the terrorists.

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister keep returning to talk of a "war on terror" mimicking the Bush administration's obsession. Seeing the risks posed by terrorists groups like Al Qaeda and JI, Australians expect their government to take prudent steps to minimise the risks to citizens and to bring those who kill and maim to justice. Instead, as the United States government was forced to admit, the "war on terror" has actually increased the number of significant terrorist attacks in 2003 to a twenty year high.15

But even this threat needs to be kept in perspective. During the Cold War years, we lived with the much greater danger of a catastrophic nuclear war, without the electorate being incessantly urged to be fearful. Indeed, we live every day with much greater risks - on our roads and in our workplaces. In the United States, many more die from suicide, from road accidents and from other homicides every year than were murdered in the twin towers. Every death has its horrors.

Intimidating war talk should not be tolerated. It is cynically being used to create the impression that for our safety we need leaders who was prepared to go to war. In fact what we need most are men and women of peace, people prepared to strengthen international cooperation against terrorist acts and confront its causes.

For the people of Afghanistan and Iraq the fear induced "war on terror" has created great misery. Life for the average Iraqi is more insecure now than it ever was even at the height of Saddam's brutal regime. There have been an estimated 100,000 excess deaths in Iraq because of the 2003 invasions16. Others put it even higher. The Washington Post has reported that about 400 suicide bombings have shaken Iraq since the U.S. invasions and suicide is now involved in two out of every three insurgent bombings.

As a result, that even Iraqis who previously supported the occupation are now opposed to the US presence, with those who strongly oppose it greatly outnumbering those who strongly support it. What's more US troops in Iraq are viewed as an occupying force, not peacekeepers or liberators. Neither are they trusted; Iraqis believe they have behaved badly, and hold them responsible for much of the violence in the nation. Even more problematic for the U.S. and its allies is the fact that there is significant popular support for attacks on US forces, and this support probably grew during the course of 2004, at least among Sunni Arabs17.

Apparently to assuage our own fear, we are entitled to sacrifice the lives of countless thousands of Iraqis; the crest on your passport is the measure of your worth as a human being. Never was this more starkly illustrated than in the recent reactions to the thousand deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina and the almost identical number of Iraqis who lost their lives at the same time because the rumour of a terrorist attack caused a stampede on a bridge in Baghdad. One resulted in weeks of detailed coverage; the other barely rated beyond the initial coverage. There are no reports at all in our local press of the fact that 170 residents of Al Afar have fallen ill to "curious poisons" as they are forced to live in tents without access to clean water, food and medicines, pushed from their village because they are accused of harbouring insurgents. The grim reality of the continuing war rarely appears in the major commercial news outlets. The young Iraqi woman blogger, "Riverbend" feels the inherent double standards very sharply:

For the 3,000 victims in America, more than 100,000 have died in Iraq. Tens of thousands of others are being detained for interrogation and torture. Our homes have been raided, our cities are constantly being bombed and Iraq has fallen back decades. And for several years to come we will suffer under the influence of extremism we didn't know prior to the war.

Foreign Policy and the "War on Terror"

Another more general consequence of framing the response to terrorism as "war" is that U.S. foreign policy (and ours, in embarrassing imitation) has been upended. It would appear that all the complexity of global affairs and relationships must be redefined as subsidiary to terrorism. Instead of invoking international law and co-operation, we now support the policy of unilateral strikes on those perceived as a threat and the military defeat of brutal dictators so democracy can be implanted. A moment's thought produces an impossibly long list of potential battlefields and adversaries.

Apparently, much as during the "cold war", the U.S. and Australia are prepared to adopt an "anything goes" mentality in the so-called "war against terrorism. Our governments are prepared to embrace as allies, governments with a sordid record of grotesque violations of human rights.

Gareth Evans18, reminds us that to wrap everything up in the language of a "war on terrorism" does not contribute to clear operational thinking because it ignores problems which are not readily subsumed under this mantle and misrepresents others which are not at all related - Iraq, Iran, North Korea.

The result is that the fundamentals which actually drive conflicts, the economic and social causes, are not addressed and may, indeed, be worsened with the result that they are more, not less likely to explode. As he puts it, the "War on Terror" can never be an effective substitute for the traditional hard work of dealing with core political problems - appropriate defence, the pursuit and punishment of perpetrators, improving front-line defences in terrorists' countries of origin, addressing political issues that cause grievance and the underlying social, economic and cultural issues that generate grievance - the last because it helps neutralise the appeal of the terrorists and generates the will to act against them.

Understanding Terrorism

Many people are uncomfortable even discussing the root causes of terrorism because it raises the very real possibility that past policies have contributed to present problems (eg the policy in Afghanistan). Just last year, a government statement on terrorism even insisted that "the notion of root causes is misleading. It implies there is something we can offer to correct or mitigate the threat." This is a counsel of ultimate despair since it implies that, since there is nothing we can do about the causes, we are inevitably locked into a never-ending cycle of violence - "sangue lava sangue", "blood washes blood".

The alternative to attempting to understand what is going on is the Bush administration's prescription, adopted with such alacrity by Australia's government, of large doses of military action and political repression as the cure for Islamic terrorism. This formula reflects an explicit rejection of advice from counterinsurgency experts who have warned that the reliance on warfare and the inadequate attention to the root causes of Middle East anger could actually accelerate the problem rather than reducing it to a manageable law enforcement issue. At the very least, we should note what the terrorists claim are their objectives, even though we repudiate their actions.

A society that allows "war" framing to become part of our national psyche and overdoses on fear makes itself vulnerable to far more profound forms of destruction than terror attacks. When people are made to feel threatened, they tend to simplify; when they are in a reduced psychological state, they regress, splitting the world into "safe" and "threatening", "good" and "evil", "life" and "death".

We should not submit to a new political order organised around fear. A simple plot line of goodies and baddies may be entertaining in a B-grade movie but it does not suffice as a framework for dealing with serious questions like what drives the terrorists to their murderous acts and how can we stop them? We do not have to partition the world into two contending apocalyptic forces.

And we've been encouraged to imagine that these terrorists are, by definition, Muslims who hate us for no understandable reason, but simply because of who we are. Instead of seeking to mobilise resources to analyse - and counter - the processes of indoctrination and the development of extremist religious and ethnic ideologies, we are encouraged to believe that we a confronting dark forces whose motivation is beyond understanding. And we should not be stopped from undertaking this analysis by those who obdurately refuse to see the difference between explanation and justification.

Terrorism and Freedom

Some leaders, including our Prime Minster, seem to think that sheer military might and highly visible, intrusive security measures are all that are required to keep us safe in the so-called "war on terror". The vast amounts of money, energy and inventiveness being poured into defence and security need close - and sceptical - scrutiny. Recent reports 19 estimate that up to 500 additional spies will be recruited in Australia over the next few years as counter-terrorism spending pushes toward a billion dollars a year. Since 2001-2002, while the Ausaid budget has declined by 10%, ASIO's has increased by 168%, Defence's by 25% (to $17 billion) and the AFP's by 64%. We need to be vigilant to ensure that these expanded intelligence services are not politicised (as they were in the lead up to the Iraq invasion) and that their preoccupations do not drive public policy. It is especially important for the health of our democracy that "the secret state" not be allowed to put itself beyond the law. And we are entitled to question whether this is the most effective use of scarce resources.

By embracing measures which erode long-standing protections against the oppressive use of state power against citizens we run the risk of profoundly altering our daily lives, despite the fact that it is simply impossible to construct an entirely airtight defence of a free, democratic society. In countering the propaganda of the extremists, the challenge is to demonstrate that democracy is indeed a superior form of government and that we remain true to its principles - the rule of law, separation of powers, respect for political and human rights and the inherent worth of all human lives.

After hundreds of years of debate in the West about the judicious balance between freedom of the individual and protection of the society, we appear to have been panicked into the conclusion that protection of society should enjoy pre-eminence. For example, Australian governments agreed, allegedly to improve our security from terrorist attacks, to give police the power to detain people for two weeks without charge and to allow effective "house arrest" of suspects. This overturns the right to personal liberty, described by Australian High Court Justice Fullagar in 1955 as "the most elementary and important of all common law rights." It also strikes at the heart of the presumption of innocence.

We are also seeing an acceleration of technological surveillance, lists of suspected terrorists, electronic alarms, bomb sniffing dogs, more security agents and so on. Indeed, it has been said that the security industry is the big growth industry of the 21st century.

Amnesty International's May report also charged that the U.S.-led war against terrorism is sowing fear and danger in the name of security across the globe and denying basic rights to those who have been arrested. They reported that "thousands of women and men suffering unlawful detention, unfair trial and torture - often solely because of their ethnic or religious background" and that "far from making the world a safer place, [the war] has made it more dangerous by curtailing human rights, undermining the rule of international law and shielding governments from scrutiny."

At a recent international conference on freedom of expression, the Chairman of World Press Freedom Jim Ottaway said that "one of the most damaging, unintended consequences of terrorism and the worldwide war against terrorism is the new global crackdown on press freedom and increased censorship of public information by many governments." Of at least as much concern is the role that sections of the media play in generating fear by ramping up the fear rhetoric and narrowing people's expectations of what can be done.

We all need to revisit these questions and urge our legislators to adopt policies which are based on evidence about what works and will really make us safer. We should challenge those who retail fear for their own profit and advantage, closely scrutinising their claims and assertions. We should collectively discuss how much we are willing to pay for what is, in reality, a small reduction in the already small probabilities of damage from terrorist attacks. We should publicly debate how many incursions into our freedom we are prepared to countenance because of policies which are primarily reassuring, but do little to change the actual risk.

We need to properly assess the danger we face from terrorism in the context of the many risks we confront - and survive - every day. As I said earlier, there are infinite possibilities for worry - some quite plausible, others improbable. Terrorism itself does not threaten our nation or our civilisation or our values, but our responses to terrorist acts might well do so. Horrific though the attacks in New York , in Madrid , in London, in Bali have been, none of them has threatened the state, the government or the way of life in these countries. This is not to diminish the pain and suffering of the victims or the grief suffered by their families, but to put the attacks in sober perspective.

Responsible governments should attempt to give us a realistic perspective on the remote likelihood of the terrible consequences they imagine, not beat them up to the point of panic. It plays right into the hands of the terrorist groups to overstate their capacities and the threats they pose. Every time Bush - or any one else talks about the great evil out there which poses a threat to life as we know it, they are reading the terrorists' scripts and giving them far more power than they actually possess.


Ours is a time in which the politics of fear is in full flight, although it may be argued that exploitation of fear is the politicians' normal "stock in trade". Fear sells and it gets people elected.

Fear is the most powerful tool of manipulation available to our leaders and such manipulation is a form of abuse.

Fear sows mistrust in the community and reduces people's desire and ability to come together for constructive social change. How can we work together if we do not trust one another? If we come to trust the experts and mistrust our own judgments, we are less likely to see the point of being involved in political life.

Pressed into the employ of the current Government's narrow interpretation of Australia's "national interest" such techniques can, as Burke puts it, "break and dissolve the bonds which linked individuals with broader social obligations and forms of collective social organisation." They poison our relationships with one another and create a "more selfish and atomised" citizenship attuned to self-interest and suspicious of the claims of others.

Those in a high state of impotent anxiety are likely to feel overwhelmed and withdraw into their private worlds. As many authoritarian leaders have well understood, a populace is best controlled when it's afraid - controlled and diverted.

Without a moral dimension to public policy, we are all vulnerable to appeals to self-interest over cooperation and hostility over empathy. And we know from history the consequences of such deterioration in civic life.

We need to cut our fears down to more plausible scale and face the complicated realties of our world. The survival of our democracies depends not on our capacity to hit back at the terrorists, but on our capacity to think for ourselves.


1.David L.Altheide (2002) Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, p 3.

2.Charles Townshend (2002) Terrorism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3.John Mueller (2004) A false sense of insecurity? Regulation, Fall: 42-46.

4.Michael Sivak & Michael Flangan (2003) Flying and driving after the September 11 attacks. American Scientist, 91 (1) January-February: 6-9.

5.Bob Ellis:

6. Borgu, Aldo. (2004) Combating Terrorism - The challenge for policymakers in Australia and the U.S. Presentation to the 2004 Fulbright Symposium, Brisbane, Australia

7.Ronald. I. Spiers. (2004) How do you know when you win? RutlandHerald, Monday July 26.

8.Wole Soyinka (2204) The Climate of Fear, Reith Lectures, BBC

9.Net Crawford (2001) Fear itself: hazards of massive retaliation. Project on Defense Alternatives.

10.Wole Soyinka (2004) op cit.



13.Harold Meyerson (2005). What have we wrought? American Prospect Online, 18th. August

14.Chatham House (2005) Security, Terrorism and the U.K. ISC/NSC Briefing Paper, 05/01.

15. Krugman, Paul (2004) Errors on terror could cost U.S. dearly. New York Times, June 27

16.Les Roberts, Riyadh Lafta, Richard Garfield, Jamal Khudhairi, Gilbert Burnham(2004) Mortality Before and After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cluster Sample Survey, The Lancet, October 29.

17.Carl Connetta (2005) Vicious Circle: The Dynamics of Occupation and Resistance in Iraq. Project on Defense Alternatives Research Monograph #10

18.Evans, Gareth. (2003) Why the War on Terror is Not Going Well. International Herald Tribune, September 11.

19.Patrick Walters (2005).500 new spies in anti-terror outlay. The Weekend Australian, 10-11 September.