Once upon a time fear was a gift from nature – it triggered our “fight or flight” mechanism, vital to keeping us alive. Especially when we lived in a less built up world where every day we faced things tht could kill us.
It seems to me though that most of our fears these days have very little to do with “fight or flight” and keeping us alive. In fact, I think that most of our fears these days are completely manufactured to serve particular interests. Like for instance the constant fears that we’re not beautiful enough, don’t own the right clothes or car, fears that other people are having more fun than us, fear that if we don’t insure everything we own and our life, one day something will happen and our entire existence will amount to nothing.
The advertising industry has as long as it’s existed cultivated fear as a way of selling us products that we don’t really need. And it works. So it’s only natural that politicians would take an interest. Add a willing media, and we have the politics of fear.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on this blog about the media witch-hunt for Muslims. Later on the day that I posted it, I discovered that the front page of the Courier Mail was excitedly reporting that a terrorist attack in Australia by home-grown fundamentalist Muslims was “likely”. Since then we have seen non-stop media coverage of “terror threats”, we’ve seen Australia commit to another war in Iraq, new ASIO powers proposed, bins being welded shut at Brisbane train stations, protests against mosques being built on the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, Jacqui Lambie becoming the inarticulate spokesperson for our deep-seated national Islamophobia, and mass anti-terrorism raids in Sydney and Brisbane.
Every new development has been screamed from the rooftops by politicians (looking very serious) and the media (barely restraining their glee at one sensational headline after another). And we’ve also seen, though certainly not on the front pages, incidences everywhere of violence against random Islamic people (mostly women who are easily identifiable by their scarves and veils).
I can remember the early 2000’s. I remember the post-9/11 hysteria over the dual threat of terrorists and “boat people”. Outright lies from the government (of “children overboard” and “weapons of mass destruction”) were pre-texts for brutal immigration detention centres, the invasion of Iraq, wild new anti-terror laws that set civil liberties back decades. I remember the your-neighbour-might-be-a-terrorist securtiy hotline. “Be alert not alarmed” they said, as they bombed Iraq to rubble. And I remember the culmination of that era – the legacy of the politics of fear. In January 2006 the sleepy beachside suburb of Cronulla was the setting for an uncontrollable eruption of racially motivated violence against anyone who wasn’t white.
The Cronulla riots were a bit of an awakening for Australians – we looked in the mirror and didn’t like what we had become. The end of the Howard era was just around the corner. But as I look around right now, the scenario seems remarkably familiar. An unpopular government (trying to recover from a disastrous budget announcement) seizes upon the opportunity to use fear to try to bolster support against a common (perceived) enemy. Tony Abbott had a go at talking tough about Putin before Islamic State appeared like the proverbial god in the machine. Abbott can position himself as the strong leader holding together a nation under threat, any dissenting voices can be labelled sympathisers with terrorists. And it’s worked. As the byline in The Australian yesterday read: “Support for the Coalition has risen to a five-month high as voters show their approval of Tony Abbott’s handling of national security matters.”
I think there are questions that we need to be asking about this national emergency. Questions like: Why is the number of people who have actually been charged so miniscule compared to the number of houses that have been raided? Why is there a total black ban on reporting any details of the evidence used for the terror raids when the media were given full access to (at this stage completely innocent) people’s houses being raided by the police? How is it that ASIO are getting laws passed that protect them from liability for illegal actions they engage in, while people who travel to “no-go zones” will legally be considered guilty until proven innocent? Is it a coincidence that those very public “terror raids” occurred immediately before the government extends extraordinary ASIO powers that were originally only for three years until 2025? What specific evidence is there about terrorist attacks planned in Australia?
The history of terrorism related arrests in Australia is not a good one. While there have been people found guilty of planning terrorist attacks; there are also incidences like the bombing of the Sydney Hilton Hotel in 1978 – a bizarre episode that was blamed on the religious sect Ananda Marga. Three members of Ananda Marga were first arrested then later acquitted. Meanwhile ASIO, who had at the time been coming under criticism, were granted extra powers. In 2007, Muhamed Haneef was arrested in Brisbane, held in solitary confinement for 12 days before being released (he was later given an undisclosed amount of compensation). Let’s not forget David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib being imprisoned and tortured in US offshore prison Guantanamo Bay. In fact, while we’re at it, let me remind you that there are still 150 men detained in the infamous torture camp. Most of them have been there over a decade now without ever having been charged. In general the “war on terror”, for all the money spent, new laws and human rights abuses, doesn’t seem to have done much besides leave a few foreign countries in a much worse state than they were in before.
Of course the bitter irony is that for all the rhetoric of “emergency’, the very tangible threat to all 7 billion of us earthlings, which is climate change, is definitely not on Tony Abbott’s radar. In a moment of perfect symbolism, Abbott is flying to New York for a world leaders summit on combating terrorism but snubbed the talks on climate change which occurred the day before.
It’s worth remembering too the last manufactured “emergency”. Because all this terrorism talk has shifted from the media focus the fact that a middle eastern man did die an unnecessary death in Australia this month. It was Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Kehazaei, who had a cut on his foot which became infected due to the fact that there is no adequate sewerage at the Manus Island detention centre. He was refused medical treatment to the point where when he actually got to hospital he was declared brain dead from septicaemia. His life support was turned off the next day. And the people responsible for this are telling us that others are “evil”?
If terrorism is the use of fear to achieve political goals, the literal terrorists right now are the Murdoch media and the government, who have intentionally bombarded us with terrorism hyperbole based on very scarce evidence. And what have been the fruits? Increasing reports of physical violence against a minority group in our country, exclusion of the group to such an extent that it will quite possibly lead to more people being radicalised, laws being passed that further deny civil liberties, another war in Iraq. These things are truly frightening.
We need to keep clear heads in analysing what the things are that we really need to be worried about. We need people who will be fearless in standing up for justice in the face of an angry public and heavy media bias. But we also need to keep putting forward ideas that are alternatives to the politics of fear. Love, solidarity, hospitality, caring about others and about the future. These politics don’t help big business at all, but I do think they represent the best chance we have of a less frightening world.