Waleed Aly The Age 8 June 2017
Terrorism once seemed isolated, each attack hitting us like a massive thud, now it is a drum beat: steady, regular, some whacks combining to form a relentless sound track to our time. The exasperation is thorough, real and pervasive. You probably said those words to yourself well before you heard May say them. “Enough is enough.”
But they're also misleading. "Enough is enough" implies a level of control. It's what you say to a misbehaving child just as you decide it's finally time to impose a punishment. It's what you say when you decide to quit the job you hate. But terrorism is nothing like that. It does not exist merely because we haven't yet decided to extinguish it.
To see this, consider that we've been saying this kind of thing more or less since the September 11 attacks. That, you will recall, was meant to be the moment that changed the world, that ushered in a new war unlike anything we've seen. "There was before 9/11 and after 9/11", explained a former CIA director of counterterrorism. "After 9/11 the gloves come off." So we rushed off to two interminable wars. And we've been taking gloves off ever since, introducing new counterterrorism legislation to a drum beat of our own, steadily expanding the power of the state, and its ability to gather intelligence. Still the attacks come. Indeed, they increase.
Australian counterparts haven't quite got to the point of adopting Nazi terminology, but we're flirting with the internment idea. Here it takes the form of proposing special courts for terror suspects in which they can be held indefinitely precisely because we lack the evidence to convict, as both Tony Abbott and retired army general Jim Molan did this week. To be fair, Molan refused internment as a description of this, accepting the "appalling back story" that word implies. But we are talking about incarcerating people on suspicion and without trial. With respect, I'm not sure what else to call that.
"We are at war" tweeted one of Sunrise's regular commentators – who was quite prepared to call it internment – by way of support, as though it was some urgent, original diagnosis. But we've been using that exact phrase, and building policy on it, since at least September 12, 2001. This approach has failed because it has always made the same fundamental miscalculation that terrorism is some more-or-less static, finite evil that can be isolated and destroyed. When Katie Hopkins says "we need to start incarcerating, deporting, repeating until we clean this country up" she's imagining a day when the last potential terrorist is imprisoned, where we've finally caught all the bad guys, and anyone we think might one day become one.
But when the attacks continue because some 14-year-old kid wasn't on the radar, or because authorities monitored someone and decided he wasn't a serious risk, we'll then expand the circle. Even the most fleeting levels of suspicion will become enough grounds for detention. Then, when that doesn't finish it, we'll go for people we think should have known about an attack on suspicion they're supporters of terrorism. Eventually, we'll decide it's all too hard sorting the benign from the malignant and propose the internment of Muslims altogether. This, after all, is the logical extension of the idea of banning Muslim immigration. And then, when potential terrorists start masquerading as non-Muslims to avoid incarceration, what will we do?
What exactly is our end point here? Because there will always be a case to make. Take Iran: an awesomely brutal security state that has shown no compunction in imprisoning and torturing dissenters, and which defines its security threats extremely broadly. However tough we might want to be on terrorism, we will surely never match that. And yet Iran has just now witnessed a major IS terrorist attack of its own, despite being an overwhelmingly Shiite nation scarcely known for housing masses of IS supporters. The truth is that while hard police power is important, the track record of governments trying to eliminate terrorism predominantly by force isn't an encouraging one.
That's because at terrorism's heart is the narrative that sustains it. That narrative is itself a complex of things: social circumstances, an array of grievances and crucially, an ideology that makes these things coherent and directs that anger towards an enemy. Islamism is currently potent because it does this so efficiently. You can't imprison that potency out of existence. You can only try to make it ring less true, so fewer and fewer people are attracted to it. And given one of Islamism's most common conspiratorial motifs is that Western societies are out to destroy Islam and will never accept Muslims, the road to internment seems a fraught one to walk. We're fortunate for now such ideas are marginal in our politics. But we're heading that way unless we can at some point look at our instinctive, visceral responses and say enough is enough. [Abridged]