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Terrorism - What still needs to be said

By Des Moore - posted Monday, 15 October 2001

So much has been written on the implications of the terrorists’ attack on the US that it may seem redundant to add to the explosion of words. But there are several issues that need much greater clarification and one or two that have yet to be addressed.

First, it is important that the community understands that this terrorism is not simply an attack on America’s alleged imperialism but is a threat to civilization and to Australia itself. The measured response by President Bush confirms that his aim is the prevention of future atrocities, not simply retribution.

These terrorists are fanatics who are prepared to pursue a suicide strategy to attack Western institutions and all who believe in individual freedom and democracy. The leaders of the fanatics live in hierarchical, "tribal" societies and (rightly) regard their existing dictatorial power and their different ways of life as under threat from liberalism.


Second, the terrorist threat is not only to our democratic and liberal way of life: it extends to our physical existence. If not brought under control, it will pose a much more serious threat in the future as terrorists acquire greater technical capacities and access to weapons with much greater killing capacities. The existing terrorists are, in one sense, amateurs. But if they get hold of nuclear weapons (as will happen if the present situation is allowed to continue) we are in very serious trouble indeed.

Third, many are worried that America will over-react and kill a lot of innocent civilians in Afghanistan or Iraq. This in turn could lead to some countries turning against the US and its allies. Otherwise friendly Arab countries could themselves feel forced to take an anti-American position.

But, while it is naturally desirable that any military action minimises losses of innocent civilians, it is absolutely vital that the terrorists and their support mechanisms (including training camps and financial assets) be destroyed wherever possible. If those support mechanisms include governments, over time they too must be removed. Innocent civilians trying to escape terrorist activities should be given generous aid.

Although military action will almost certainly mean losses of innocents, a failure to bring terrorism under control would undoubtedly bring more terrorist acts in the rest of the world causing subsequent large losses of innocent civilians there. Those supporting protests against military action must ask themselves whether they are prepared seriously to risk the destruction of our cities and populations. In short, unpleasant as it may seem, a trade off between innocent lives must be faced.

Fourth, while the Islamic religion does not provide a justification for terrorism and the innocents among our more than 200 000 Muslims must be protected, it is an inescapable fact that the terrorists are able to use that religion as a vehicle to attract or force adherents to become extremist supporters, even suiciders. Australia already has some who are actual or potential supporters. Worryingly, those supporters do not necessarily display extremist tendencies when living in Western communities.

A coherent response to this situation is extraordinarily difficult and, as President Bush has indicated, attempts to negotiate or to talk through the issues will not help. But we must certainly demand that leaders in Islamic communities tell their groups that support for the terrorists (and overt anti-Americanism) is contrary to their religion, the interests of the communities themselves - and Australia’s interests.


Serious questions also need to be addressed in regard to the composition of Australia’s immigration program. Is it sensible in circumstances where it is impossible to distinguish between good and bad Muslims to continue allowing immigrants who are adherents to Islam and/or are from Islamic countries?

Fifth, some argue that America needs to publicly display "the evidence" identifying the terrorists before it takes action against them. Such people are also worried about the likely additional constraints that will almost certainly be imposed on individual freedom. But the very serious dangers to the Western world make it vital that we allow our defenders greater latitude in identifying the possible opponents and that we accept more restraints on our freedoms.

Sixth, many say that American support for Israel is the underlying cause of the terrorism and their desire to retrieve the perceived holy land: indeed one object of the terrorists is clearly to eliminate the US presence in the Middle East. But even if Israel were simply left to defend itself – as would be unthinkable – it is highly unlikely that this would eliminate a terrorism whose roots go much deeper.

The bottom line is that we have no practical alternative but to support aggressive American action against terrorism and to recognize that such action may require the killing of innocent civilians – in the interest of our own survival.

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About the Author

Des Moore is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise and a former Deputy Secretary, Treasury. He authored Schooling Victorians, 1992, Institute of Public Affairs as part of the Project Victoria series which contributed to the educational and other reforms instituted by the Kennett Government. The views are his own.

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