On 15 and 16 October 2001, 131 packages were reported to the police on the suspicion that they contained anthrax. Between 11 September 2001 and February 2002, the authorities investigated more than a thousand such claims.
The now-forgotten anthrax panic makes an interesting contrast with the current reaction to ISIS-related terrorism, not least as an illustration of the extraordinary evolution in threat perception.
In the aftermath of September 11, ‘bioterrorism’ ranked as one of the top risks that all those newly minted ‘terror experts’ assured us we faced. The Australian and New Zealand newspaper databases for 2001 return a startling 1899 references to anthrax. Do the same search for 2014, and you uncover a mere 62 results, most of which pertain to cattle.
In all the coverage about the Islamic State, no-one – not even the most nervy of our national security bedwetters – has raised the prospect of anthrax poisoning.
Does that mean we’re less easily frightened, less prone to scare ourselves with improbable threats?
No, not quite. Rather, what leaps out from a comparison of the headlines thirteen years ago with those from today is that, right now, the media needs far, far less in order to whip up a panic.
In October 2001, the towers had just fallen. With thousands of New Yorkers spectacularly murdered, all manner of grand plots sounded at least vaguely plausible. When, for instance, the Daily Telegraph informed Sydneysiders that ‘intelligence sources’ understood Osama bin Laden to be building nuclear bombs, the idea did not necessarily seem entirely ridiculous.
Had not al-Qaeda just demonstrated its capacity to steer jet liners into New York skyscrapers? Why not believe that its chief would follow up with another act of almost cartoonish super-villainy – like, say, detonating a ‘dirty bomb’ (another once ubiquitous term that’s entirely vanished from the national security lexicon) in a western metropolis?
Now, think of today. The Australian senate has just passed draconian restrictions on journalistic freedom. Why? The current panic began, not after some spectacular mass casualty attack, but because a man was allegedly overheard talking about stabbing a stranger in the street.
Yes, that’s right. Not deploying a nuclear bomb, not engaging in bioterrorism, not hijacking planes but scheming – if you can even call it that – to randomly knife someone in Sydney’s CBD.
The tiny scale of that ‘plot’ was not at all anomalous, either. Here’s Abu Mohammed al Adnani from the Islamic State advising Western supporters:
If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be.
Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.
Smash his head with a rock? Run him over with your car? Not exactly biowar, is it!
In fact, the speech amounts to an acknowledgement of incapacity: Adnani’s murderous bluster implicitly accepts that his listeners cannot access weapons or bombs (let alone anthrax), and so must rely on whatever tools they can scrabble together.
Yet, George Brandis says Australians face an existential threat, more of a security risk than during the Cold War. Think about that: he’s saying, with a straight face, that Adnani’s call to push people from tall buildings represents more of a danger than the ten thousand nuclear warheads that the Soviets once aimed at their Western enemies.
Others have spelled out this upsidedownland logic even more explicitly, arguing that the obvious diminution of the mooted terror plans actually represents an escalation. Thus Fairfax recently explained that schemes like the random stabbing supposedly planned for Sydney would, in fact, ‘be more powerful in terms of [their] psychological impacts than a mass casualty attack.’
Here’s a logic that’s moved from the realm of politics into the domain of magic, where anything even tangentially connected to terrorists or terrorism becomes imbued with a powerful demonic aura. Consider the Australian’s report on the teenager shot to death in Melbourne by anti-terror police.
So did Haider, who says he learned to ‘follow instructions with speed and accuracy’ as a supermarket shelf-packer in suburban Melbourne, go to his death on the instructions of Islamic State? The early evidence suggests he did …
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, terrorists were presented as dangerous because they were highly skilled specialists, who had honed their talents at elite training camps. Today, they obtain their fearful abilities from entirely mundane and everyday occupations such as supermarket shelf-packing.
This transformation in attitudes to terror parallels an equally peculiar transformation in attitudes to war.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 never drew much popular support. Protests against the conflict mobilised more people than any previous demonstrations in human history, as millions of ordinary folk assessed, perfectly correctly, that the war would bring nothing but more misery and chaos.
Nevertheless, the enthusiasts for Operation Iraqi Freedom could mount a more-or-less coherent argument about what was supposed to happen. The neoconservative intellectuals insisted that the overthrow of Saddam’s tyranny would be greeted with wild enthusiasm, before the success of a liberated Iraq set off a domino effect across the Middle East, in which the US would throw its military weight behind liberty lovers across the region.
By contrast, the return to Iraq – the mission against the Islamic State – remains staggeringly incoherent, with few commentators or politicians even pretending to know what it’s supposed to achieve.
For instance, Australia’s already been helping to supply weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga forces who, says Fairfax, are working hand-in-hand with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Why is that of note?
Because in 2010, the AFP conducted anti-terror raids targeting organisations (such as the Kurdish Association of Victoria) said to be providing support to the PKK, an organisation officially listed as a terrorist group in Australia. Under the terrorism legislation, it’s a serious offense to fund a terrorist group – an offence defined by the government as follows (PDF):
Financing terrorism involves the intentional collection or provision of funds (including on behalf of another person) and recklessness as to whether the funds will be used to facilitate or engage in a terrorist act.
It does not matter if a terrorist act does not occur, or if the funds will not be used for a specific terrorist act or for more than one terrorist act.
This is precisely what the Australian government’s doing in Iraq now. Fairfax writes:
When Prime Minister Tony Abbott first announced Australia’s renewed military involvement in Iraq, he was asked about concerns that arms delivered by the RAAF could fall into the hands of the PKK. His response: the Kurdish government had assured the US and others that the weapons will be used by the Peshmerga.
But in the chaos of war, no one is in a position to make those guarantees. […]
Najat Ali Salah, a Peshmerga commander stationed in Makhmur, speaks openly about the military cooperation between Kurdish forces and the PKK
How, then, is the government not in breach of its own anti-terror laws, laws deployed against Kurdish people in Australia only four years ago?
This is more than mere hypocrisy. It typifies the bizarre alliances that the new intervention rests upon, alliances that almost guarantee more wars down the track.
For example, the new support from Western governments will undoubtedly strengthen the positions of Kurdish forces. What happens, then, if, in the wake of this adventure, the Kurds declare an independent state, a goal that they’ve long been seeking? What does that mean for Iraq or for Turkey? Has anyone given the question a moment’s thought?
Likewise, Slate recently reported that Obama has been secretly coordinating US air strikes with both the Iranian dictatorship and the Syrian tyrant Assad, two regimes the magazine dubbed ‘America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS’. Yes, that’s right: this humanitarian mission involves a de facto alliance with Assad, the most vicious dictator in the region, and Iran, of Axis-of-Evil fame.
Meanwhile, within Iraq, the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – whose militias are currently fighting the Islamic State – has been calling demonstrations against the deployment of American ground troops. At one of these recent protests, Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji publicly claimed that the US was behind the IS, while other demonstrators burned American flags.
But if Obama’s putative allies want the Americans to stay out, his enemies can’t wait for them to get in, with representatives of the Islamic State proclaiming that they crave a ground invasion.
‘Is this all you are capable of doing in this campaign of yours?’ said spokesman Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in response to recent air strikes. ‘Are America and all its allies… unable to come down to the ground?’
‘They are aching for a conflict with the West,’ Peter Neuman, from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told the BBC. ‘The execution videos [of Western hostages] were bait to provoke an over-reaction. As soon as there are Western boots on the ground it then becomes the old narrative of the West versus Islam and they can claim they are fighting the occupation. They are trying to suck us in.’
In conventional battle, the Americans will pulverise the Islamic State’s ragtag forces. But a military defeat short of complete annihilation will be an ideological victory for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, bolstering his claim to be leading the worldwide struggle against forces innately hostile to Muslims.
For the caliphate to possess any credibility it must be central to the Islamist struggle – and nothing demonstrates that more than a war with the US.
The Islamic State grew out of opposition to the corrupt Maliki government in Iraq and then from the revolution against the Assad dictatorship in Syria. In both cases, it attacked other oppositionists, seeking to transform struggles for freedom into sectarian wars. It wants to present a stark choice: either you’re for the oppressive status quo – or you’re with us.
The West seems determined to oblige, with an incoherent intervention depending on openly antagonistic forces, a mission that seems almost tailor-made to intensify the crisis in the region.
Whereas the 2003 intervention was a war of choice for the US, Obama’s return to Iraq has been largely forced upon him – either he destroys the Islamic State or else acknowledges America’s loss of control of Iraq. The war represents an attempt by Obama to reassert authority in the Middle East – and, by extension, to bolster his political fortunes at home.
That’s why there’s nothing approaching a coherent plan. America’s doing this simply because the White House can’t afford to do otherwise.
Likewise, Australia’s involvement is purely political. No doubt the Islamic State has a few supporters in this country. But, until recently, the group’s interests were exclusively regional. The name ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ is a clue: it’s an organisation preoccupied with the conflict in Iraq and Syria.
Quite obviously, Abbott’s involvement in another Iraq war massively intensifies the prospect of terrorist outrages, and the unwillingness of the government to acknowledge something so obvious speaks volumes about the hypocrisy in which debates about terrorism are cloaked.
In a sense, then, these missions are self-perpetuating, in that they create the conditions that subsequently justify them. The risk of terrorism probably has climbed over the last weeks, something which is being used to bolster an intervention that will, without doubt, elevate the risk of terrorism further.
Within, of course, a certain context. This remains one of the safest countries in the entire world, a place where no Australians have been killed by terrorists since 1978 – something you’d never grasp from the reporting over the last weeks, despite the bipartisan support for legislation that will fundamentally change the political culture.
Throughout the entirety of the Cold War, ASIO directed its efforts both against foreign spies and against local activists – indeed, it regarded the two categories as synonymous. If you look at any of the histories of ASIO, or peruse the declassified files available at the National Archives, you’ll see that almost anyone active in, say, the struggle against apartheid, the campaign against the Vietnam War, the movement for women’s liberation or any other progressive cause of note became a target of surveillance.
For decades, ASIO ruined lives in Australia, ensuring that leftwingers were denied jobs or promotions, often without even knowing why. It took decades of campaigning to push the organisation back.
Now that’s all been undone.
The bipartisan support for the new ASIO powers represents the unity of a political class confidence that its own interests will be protected. But Paul Farell is right – under these new laws, journalists and activists will, eventually, be jailed.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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