Follow us on

How to Protect Democratic Values Against the Threat of Islamic State Terrorism

by Stephen Coleman
19 November 2015
LAW, JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS
ISIS says the Paris terror attack targeted western values. Waleed Aly and others are encouraging us as individuals to come together in response. But what should lawmakers do? Stephen Coleman explores.
 
Since the attacks in Paris everyone has been talking about terrorism. “Why is it happening?” Or, perhaps more importantly, “How should we respond to it?”
 
In a globally celebrated segment on The Project, Waleed Aly eloquently outlined how we should respond to terrorism as individuals. But more than an individual response is required.
 

What is presently being debated is how we should respond as a political community. To answer this question we need to understand the actual risk of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack and then consider how governments should respond to that risk.
 
Despite the popularity of the term, it is difficult to define what terrorism actually is. There is no agreed international definition of terrorism. Nor is there likely to be one in the future given the fundamentally different viewpoints expressed by powerful states about what should and should not be included in such a definition.
 
When discussing hard core pornography U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart >famously claimed, “I know it when I see it”. Perhaps terrorism fits into the same category – though it has to be said that we are perhaps better at recognising terrorism when it is directed against us or our friends and allies than when directed against those we oppose.

 
We are better at recognising terrorism when it is directed against us or our friends and allies than when directed against those we oppose.

 
For the sake of simplicity, let’s follow Kofi Annan and accept, “What we can all agree on is any deliberate attack on innocent civilians, regardless of one's cause, is unacceptable and fits into the definition of terrorism”.
 
We have a visceral reaction to terrorism and to terrorists – which supports the idea of terrorism as the ultimate evil. Thus, we should do absolutely anything we can in order to stop it. It is this sort of idea which allows governments to pass security legislation that gives extraordinary powers to law enforcement agencies in order to allow them to combat the threat of terrorism. Governments claim these powers are necessary in order to protect the lives of law abiding citizens.
 
But this idea needs to be resisted.

 
For those of us who live in developed countries the risk of being harmed by a terrorist attack is almost vanishingly small.

 
While terrorist attacks gain a huge amount of publicity, for those of us who live in developed countries the risk of being harmed by a terrorist attack is almost vanishingly small. Between 1978 and 2014 there were 113 “Australian” fatalities in terrorist attacks (including people killed in terrorist attacks in Australia regardless of their nationality, and Australians killed in terrorist attacks overseas), an average of about three deaths per year.
 
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2013 44 Australians died falling out of bed, about 17 more off ladders and 14 drowned in bathtubs. Yet we worry far more about terrorism than we do about these more common causes of death.
 
Terrorism gets a lot of publicity and counter-terrorism programs receive a lot of funding but the money spent on counter-terrorism would probably save a lot more lives if directed elsewhere. For example, in Australia it is estimated that 850 lives per year are lost due to domestic violence, but programs to counter this problem get little attention compared to terrorism.
 
The threat of terrorism is undoubtedly real. There is no reason why the sorts of attacks which occurred in Paris last week could not occur tomorrow in Sydney, Melbourne or indeed anywhere else in Australia. The fact there has never been a large scale terrorist attack in Australia before is no reason to think there is no possibility of one occurring in the future.
 
However, our response to the threat of terrorism needs to be a well-considered and measured one, otherwise we risk doing the terrorist’s job for them. We should take sensible precautions but we should also recognise that there is more to living than simply being alive.

 
Our response to the threat of terrorism needs to be a well-considered and measured one, otherwise we risk doing the terrorist’s job for them.

 
Protests like those in Tiananmen Square, South Africa under apartheid, Eastern Europe under communism and the Arab Spring have shown time and again people are willing to risk their lives for the rights and freedoms that we tend to take for granted in Australia.
 
The attack on Paris was, at least partly, an attack on the rights and freedoms of the people of France. But an incautious response risks giving away the very rights and freedoms that we claim to be protecting. Our responses to the threat of terrorist attacks, particularly through pieces of anti-terror legislation like those passed in Australia, actually threaten our basic rights more than the terrorists do.
 
The purpose of ‘terrorism’ is to create terror. By engaging in excessive responses to the threat of terrorism we aid the cause of the terrorists.

 
Stephen Coleman is Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Leadership and & Vincent Fairfax Foundation Fellow at UNSW Canberra. This article was adapted from a TEDx talk given in Canberra in 2014. You can view the talk here. Image: screenshot via Channel Ten.