A Research Piece and the Exposed Moral Distance of Australia’s New Anti-Terror Laws.

Mark Nolan wrote a chapter in the book, Fresh Perspectives on the ‘War on Terror’ called ‘Lay Perceptions of Terrorist Acts and Counter-Terrorism Responses: Role of Motive, Offence Construal, Siege Mentality and Human Rights’ (Canberra: ANU ePress, 2008) 85-107. Quite a title!

The chapter examines the perceptions of people towards terrorist acts and counter terrorism initiatives in Australia. Nolan’s motivation for the chapter is the phrase “exceptional law for exceptional times”. He suggests this phrase sums up the arguments of those who consider ‘much of the tradition and principle of law less relevant now and creating undue risks in the prevention or regulation of political violence.’

People like George Brandis I guess given the new terror laws.

Nolan examined public perceptions of politically motivated violence and perceptions of the counter terrorism initiatives to combat the use of such violence in Australia. Interestingly he uses constructs from professor Daniel Bar-Tal’s (Tel Aviv university) examination of siege mentality in Israel.

Bar-Tal attempted to explain some social relationships in the Middle East in terms of the ongoing socialisation of Israeli Jews with a siege mentality or “a socialised psychological belief orientation that shapes the view of the ‘other’ especially conceptions of Palestinians perpetrating politically motivated violence.” In seige mentality, outsiders are perceived to want to harm the group, the threat is faced alone and in relative isolation from potential allies and coalitions.

The four consequences of such a mentality are,
1. negative attitudes against the world
2. intergroup mistrust
3. pressure towards intragroup conformity
4. self protection and self reliance

Perceived isolation in the face of negative attitudes ‘against the world’ brings an associated attitude towards the use of international institutions and concepts such as international human rights norms. Nolan interestingly  notes that in principle this mentality could be equally held by victims and perpetrators of politically motivated violence.

Nolan’s work included the scenario of police investigation of “a food tampering incident effecting supplies to a leading multinational hamburger food chain established in Australia.”

Two explanatory paragraphs about the incident or crime were used, one using ‘anti-corporate conditions’ for the crime and the other ‘jihadist conditions’.

1. Anti-corporate conditions
There has been no claim of responsibility yet but police report that anonymous threats have been made to restaurant owners that state; “Don’t trust the safety of any of your food supplies today. Action has been taken so that people will stop trusting the lies of multinational corporations who control our diet.

2. Jihadist conditions
There has been no claim of responsibility yet but police report that anonymous threats have been made to restaurant owners that state; “Don’t trust the safety of any of your food supplies today. Action has been taken so that infidels will be stopped in the name of Allah!”

Participants were asked to express the apparent motive of the alleged perpetrators in their own words to both instances and then to scale the extent to which that motive is the most important factor in judging the ‘blameworthiness’ of the act.

Nolan’s research was undertaken in 2005 and his study contained more extensive material that I have not included specifically because of the difference in likely readership. However some of Nolans findings are relevant to the current focus on Australia’s proposed new ‘terror laws.’

Firstly, Nolan found no link between siege mentality and the responses of his participants, primarily because his participants did not appear to have a siege mentality and did not feel ‘alone in the world due to terrorist threat’.

This is not surprising at all, given Australia shirt tales the US on most things and it’s regularly said by our government that “we share the same values”, thus one country in the world definitely sharesany sense we might have that there is a ‘terrorist threat out there’. Similarly the UK, our parent country, obviously shares this concern, given the responses of Cameron’s government. Even recently, the sense in this country appears to be one of being more buffered than most countries, despite recent raids on supposed jihadist incitement bookshops, the shooting of an 18yo who allegedly attacked police with knives following the raids and IS fighters in Iraq and Syria being identified as Australian.

The really interesting outcomes of Nolan’s work for my part is that;
1. Even people with a low terrorist siege mentality, who did not support the idea that civil rights be weakened by asserting the right to security, still believed that jihadist motives rendered the same act more blameworthy than anticorporate political and ideological motives.

2. There was an overall rejection that national security justified general treatment of suspects by police, court or correctional services inconsistency with international human rights and laws or standard criminal practice.

For Nolan the first of these two outcomes raised concerns about “possible impact on juries of evidence of the intention to advance political religious or ideological causes”. Nolan suggests “judges may need to use jury instructions to combat attitudinal bias against defendants alleged to be pursuing particular motives.”

My concern is greater than Nolan’s. Judges instructions to juries are often lost on juries in my experience in the courts (I have numerous examples in sexual assault cases where juries may be instructed in often lengthy diatribes that the time taken to report an assault is not considered a significant factor or that prior sexual history of the victim should not be given equal consideration with other facts I the case). The outcome here suggests that merely the term jihad is highly misunderstood by most non-Muslim Australians. A more relevant term would be violent jihad where the violence is what is considered as believing in jihad which literally means to struggle or strive which is not of itself violent. This omission of clear definition shows up both the research and the general understanding of the term in the Australian community.

On the second point I am relieved to think the large majority of the 123 respondents in the study maintained a moral stance supporting consistency of police courts and correctional services with respect for human rights even when ‘national security’ appears under threat, with only 4 dissenters to that position. However, we all know how difficult it is to ‘watchdog’ from the outside or whistleblow from the inside in these services.

Luckily senator David Leyonhjelm raised concerns that “beefed-up legislation includes immunities for special security operations that are so wide as to allow for certain forms of torture, including drugging, sensory bombardment and sleep deprivation. Additionally two senior legal experts who advised the Liberal Democratic Party on the legislation who spoke to Fairfax Media, “confirmed that the immunity provisions open a wide legal grey area and are broader than any such state power in the United Kingdom, Canada or New Zealand”. see here

The new laws have rightly raised concern but only in small doses (See video of parliamentary members with concerns and read SMH article here . The cross bench committee advising changes to the proposed laws has at least recommended the ridiculous 10 year ‘sunset’ clause be 2 years but……

We’re a complacent lot really.

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