The battle against the (stateless) Islamic State is, at last, a true “war on terror”. The west’s enthusiasm for a rebel victory in Syria has suddenly waned.
What do these remarkable developments tell us?
The brutality and barbarism of current events demonstrate the “war on terror” of the last decade not to have been a war at all. The rhetoric only for domestic consumption, to justify heightened surveillance, detention based on suspicion and intrusive searches at airport boarding gates.
As good as it made its proponents feel and their polling numbers escalate, the terror hyperbole came at the cost of dividing the community by alienating the minority with whom the public most associated with the danger.
Hindsight shows it potentially created as many new jihadists as it captured.
Although some leaders are re-visiting the same rhetoric, the term itself has not seen a revival. Its use-by date is passed, in recognition of being discredited for these very reasons. Does posturing by any other name – a call to “Team Australia” for example, alluding to the 2006 immigration quiz to score immigrants’ knowledge of the feats of cricketer Don Bradman – carry the same risks?
An incantation to the “team” implies that some won’t be picked or aren’t good enough. And to some that would look out of place; feel out of place; or simply want not to belong on the team – such remarks are a gauntlet at their feet.
Does the posting of police at airports to drag families off departing aircraft “on their own initiative” – or to many, by ethnic profiling – do the same? Most, including most Australian Muslims, sensibly believe returnees from the actual conflict should be considered on a case by case basis for surveillance and in appropriate cases, barred at the border from re-entry.
But the case for even stronger terror laws and to require journeys abroad to be proved as being “for a legitimate purpose”, is weak. The power of government to spy effectively is already broad and the crime of taking up arms in a foreign country is already on the statute books.
What are the consequences of perpetuating the rhetoric?
Those who feel slapped in the face by the “team” metaphor or seeing their cousins apprehended “on police initiative” will react defensively to one degree or another. Some capable of turning the other cheek to the rebuke implicit in the bluster may redouble their efforts at acceptance, at the same time remaining cool to the concept of a so-called “team” in which they know they would always be made to feel outsiders.
Others are likely to retreat, adding to any existing sense of alienation.
Some may eventually even retaliate against the “team” itself.
This is the predictable progression of the terror hyperbole’s effect, on a disaffected minority. Much like the adverse sensitisation of the nearby villagers by the shepherd boy’s false cries that a wolf is attacking his flock.
Magnified further by the implausible claim that the same battlefield horror could be played out in the suburbs of Australia – “it could happen in countries like Australia if we relax our vigilance against terrorism” – such range of reactions might be considered understandable.
It is not so much of a stretch to argue the current crisis itself, is a direct result of the invasion of Iraq which became the perfect recruiting advertisement for multiple terrorist organisations. Knowing this, on our soil – where there is no war and the risk to be managed is the potential pushing of candidates into the hands of jihadi recruiters – the communication exercise should be devoted entirely to inclusion, not division.
Our leaders should lead by example in a demonstration of the majority embracing the minority. What of the new-found caution from the west in its dealing with Syrian rebels? Was the west wrong from the start? Has the caution shown by Russia and China – unwavering since 2001 – been the barometer of sensible response?
Australia could rightly join a military response against the mobilised terrorists, a true war on terror.
Such engagement has more justification than ever existed as against Sadam Hussein. Who exactly one would be fighting with and against whom the fight would be waged is though, by no means clear. And the group to whom support is given may prove to be the next ‘regime’ that needs to be toppled.
Equally important, a military engagement is but a first step. The greatest effort will be reserved for political inclusion, something that we here can prepare for by immediately dumping the terror rhetoric.
The byword of our era is “caution”.
Now wouldn’t that have been handy the last time someone was considering a Middle East invasion and declaring a “war on terror”.