Waleed Aly -Jun 25, 2015
Illustration: Simon Letch.
I have a simple question: do we want terrorists to be in this country or not? For the "no" case, I give you Tony Abbott, who so desperately does "not want terrorists loose on our streets" that he has released a bill to snatch dual nationals' Australian citizenship away if they've gone to fight with Islamic State. In truth, it does massively more than that, but the central intent seems clear: to ensure terrorists who have left the country can't get back in.
For the "yes" case, I give you …Tony Abbott, whose government has cheerfully cancelled the passports of something like 80 Australians with designs on leaving. If we assume the government thinks they're terrorists, then we're actively forcing these people to run loose on our streets, rather than Syria's where, given Islamic State's current strategy with Western recruits, they'd most likely be killed quickly as cannon fodder.
Meanwhile we've undergone a whole legislative process to create new criminal offences of being in the wrong place without an excuse. Remember the no-go zones? It's a scheme that more or less assumes people are coming back, presumably to be prosecuted. And yet, when shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus suggested this would be a good thing, suddenly he was "rolling out the red carpet for terrorists".
All of which raises the question: if the main game was always to institute what Abbott this week described as a modern form of "banishment", why all this legislation for the laying of red carpet last year? Wouldn't that banishment be your starting point, from which everything else is proceeds?
There's a confusion here we're serenely ignoring. And there's a reason for that: we're not on a search for consistency. We're not committed to a series of carefully worked out principles that we're now seeking to apply. We don't even have a functioning theory of what it is that exacerbates or diminishes the threat of terrorism.
There's a bit of talk about working with communities and promoting social cohesion, then a dollop of bellicose rhetoric about Muslim leaders not condemning terrorism enough and not meaning it when they do, which swiftly trashes whatever community goodwill was meant to have been accumulated. There's lots of talk about evil death cults which describes something, but goes nowhere near explaining it.
Meanwhile there's lots – and lots – of aggressive posturing that seems to regard any resistance, even in the form of the constitution, as vaguely seditious. The point here that can barely still be called implicit, is that it is nearly impossible to go too far in this fight. It's the logic on Guantanamo, writ small.
Thus we end up with a collection of policies seemingly at odds with one another, unified only by their conspicuous toughness. Right now, that's the only form of consistency you need. You can say you're acting on the advice of experts like Bret Walker, the former National
Security Legislation Monitor, and then when he says you're misrepresenting him, tell him he wouldn't really know and plough on regardless. None of it matters. Indeed, nothing matters except the thought that we're holding the biggest sledgehammer we can find; the catharsis of smashing things. We're riding visceral emotion here.
So on Monday, when Zaky Mallah emerged to dump wildfire on the conversation, his timing was impeccable. This was the week these citizenship laws were finally to surface. These laws raise issues that are not only obvious, but utterly foundational: the rule of law, the expansion of executive power, the extraordinarily loose pretexts on which the most seminal right we have – citizenship – could simply be extinguished. In some ways, Mallah was the perfect person to ask the question. He's a man acquitted of terrorism charges – which is to say he is, officially speaking, not a terrorist – whose citizenship the government would gleefully dissolve if it had the power. On this issue, he's the very embodiment of the difference between law and politics.
But in this environment, and given his penchant for incendiary remarks, he's none of those things. He is instead an emblem of outrage; the symbolic enemy through whom every war can be fought (including as it happens, a very tired culture war against the ABC that has finally found its way to the News Limited tabloids equating it with Islamic State).
Mallah clearly thinks he's raising issues of principle, but a figure like him can only ever smother them. He's become the licence to emote; the cover that means we need never look at boring abstract issues like the separation of powers. The truth is that for all the outrage from government figures this week, Mallah is a gift to them: the object of hate that justifies almost any conceivable measure and makes their aggression a virtue. Who can resist a "tough" policy when Zaky Mallah is standing right there?
This is about more than the politicisation of terrorism. That, after all, is an old custom, which only runs aground when you get it horribly wrong – as the Howard government did in 2007 when it tried to parade Mohamed Haneef around as its prize terrorism catch.
Rather this is about legitimising our most thoughtless instincts and debasing even the most sober criticism. Watch. From here, it's not just Zaky Mallah who will be radical. It will be everything he seemed to think he was raising. It will be the notion of due process. It will be any suspicion of government overreach. And it will be any Muslim voice who dares question our counter-terrorism settings or who argues government action is further alienating young Muslims and thereby increasing radicalisation. Say that and you're practically a member of Islamic State. Just like that guy on Q&A .
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and winner of the 2014 Walkley award for best columnist. He also lectures in politics at Monash University.