Terrorism in one form or another has been around for millennia, but modern weaponry makes it so much more fearful. Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, the United States has been hypersensitised to terrorism. The attacks a year later on two nightclubs in Bali commonly frequented by holidaying Australians, had a big impact on thinking in Australia. Attacks in London, Madrid and elsewhere have also played their part in making all western countries re-think security.
Sydney has just hosted a meeting of APEC, which resulted in a massive disruption to thousands of workers and businesses, and claims of heavy-handed policing and unnecessarily strict security.
Few of us would think that we can ignore the threat of terrorism, and most would surely support some tightening of laws and some increase in police and security powers. The question is, how much security is necessary, and what is the "correct" balance between security and civil freedoms?
Australian economist, author and thinker, Clive Hamilton, has addressed this question in a recent speech and an essay in the Sydney Morning Herald titled "Fear the creeping powers of the state".
He argues that we have gone too far in creating laws that no-one fully understands, making it easier for people to come to the attention of shadowy surveillance and security organisations without knowing it, and without presenting a security risk in reality. He argues that even if most of us don't know the technicalities of ordinary laws, we all know murder and theft are against the law. But with new anti-terrorism laws, it is hard to know exactly what actions or acquaintanceships or interests might be construed as presenting a security risk.
"The [anti-terrorism] laws are not transparent and are no longer in alignment with our natural sense of what is right and wrong."
He cites the recent case of a Pakistani doctor working in Australia who gave his mobile phone SIM card to a relative, who was an associate of a terrorist in the UK. Government actions to charge him with terrorist offences and then expel him from Australia (by cancelling his visa) were shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity. When facts were finally made public, the Government's case was generally considered inadequate. But it was all done using the new anti-terrorism laws that give the government and police enormous powers.
So are these laws an over-reaction? Those whose family or friends have been victims of terrorism may not think so, but many others are concerned. It is worth considering the following:
- 88 Australians died in the 2002 Bali bombings, with a few also killed in other terrorism attacks. By comparison, about 1600 Australians die each year as a result of road accidents.
- About 2,800 people died in the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks. By comparison, more than 3,700 US troops have been killed in the Iraq war, together with about 300 other coalition troops, about 7,000 Iraqi troops and perhaps 80,000 Iraqi civilians (this number is hotly disputed, with estimates varying from about 15,000 to more than 100,000). Back home, each year about 30,000 people die because of firearms and about 42,000 die on the roads.
- In the UK, 52 people died in the 2005 London bombings, compared to about 170 British deaths in the Iraq war, and about 3,200 Britons killed on the roads each year.
I honestly don't know what to make of these figures, but I can't help feeling our level of concern should somehow be more in proportion to the numbers of deaths. Nor do I know what laws will best preserve our quality of life, but I think we would all do well to consider Clive Hamilton's points.