Liberty vs. security down under

October 16, 2005|By RICHARD PRETORIUS

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA -- In this city of sparkling beauty, trash cans are considered terrorist weapons. Fearing they might be used as hiding places for bombs, officials had them removed from train station platforms.

The waiting passenger without a place to put an empty coffee cup is also inundated with a billboard and electronic-screen message borrowed from post-9/11 New York: "If you see something, say something."

Australia, the land of free spirits a day's flight from Baltimore, does not usually register on the map of potential trouble spots. But today, largely because the country has been a strong supporter of the U.S.-led war on terror, sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, Australian security officials believe they are in the eye of a growing storm.

The land down under has already experienced what some here call its 9/11. The 2002 bombings of bars in Bali claimed 88 Australians among its 192 victims. In 2004, an attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta killed at least nine Indonesians, and at least two Australians were among those killed by this month's blasts in several Bali cafM-is. Australia's foreign minister said he will now ask Indonesia to ban the Islamic militant group suspected in the Bali bombings.

Australians' feelings of being targeted are not without justification. In August, Arabic television showed a balaclava-clad man with an Australian accent threatening jihad against the West. He was believed to be a former member of the Australian army who had been discharged for mental health reasons. Last month, Melbourne, the country's second-largest city, joined Los Angeles as attack targets of an al-Qaida member spewing invective on a tape obtained by ABC News.

In such a climate, the political leadership of this mostly white, predominantly Christian nation of 20 million people does indeed fear the next strike will come on Australian soil. Tens of millions have been spent on added security measures since 9/11. Polls show most Australians support the moves but remain skeptical of involvement in the war in Iraq, and last summer's home-grown bombing attacks in London significantly added to the concerns of Prime Minister John Howard's government.

He is now planning to take Australia down a path that has civil libertarians outraged and wondering if the freedoms that make Australia a beacon of liberty are at risk. Sound familiar?

Among Mr. Howard's proposals that will soon go into law: putting tracking devices on possible terrorist suspects, detaining people for up to two weeks without charge, expanding police search powers and curtailing free speech rights. He also wants to allow random baggage searches at transportation hubs and make it a crime to leave a bag unattended at an airport.

State and local governments approved Mr. Howard's proposals with one caveat: Such harsh restrictions on basic freedoms would expire in 10 years.

For a land that relishes its freedoms and touts its willingness to accept others, this seems an absurd twist, as if the government is saying: We really know all these moves are not good for the country, but we don't know what else to do. Just come back in 10 years, and we will be Australia again.

What strikes a visitor first about Australians is their willingness to accept others without prejudging them. Like the United States, Australia's scars from its racist past - deplorable treatment of aborigines, Chinese immigrants and other nonwhites - run deep. Today, there is a concerted effort at every turn to tout the country's growing diversity. From Sydney to Melbourne, from Canberra to Brisbane, the Aussie spirit is as welcoming as one would find anywhere in the United States.

The new laws, especially the preventive detention measures and the curtailing of speech rights, tear at the heart of that way of life. For some religious leaders of the country`s 300,000 Muslims, everything they say and do will now be monitored as if they were behind prison bars. One said such restrictions on freedoms will lead to the creation of a fascist state.

Or as John North, president of the Law Council of Australia, which represents 40,000 legal practitioners, says: "The idea of Australians to be subject to control orders or preventive detention or to be locked up for 14 days without being even suspected of a criminal charge is something that Australians should not put up with."

Mr. Howard, the prime minister, justifies the new laws by saying, "The most important civil liberty you and I have is to stay alive. To protect people from attacks is in favor of, not against, civil liberties."

However, removing trash cans in the name of fighting terrorism is a far cry from trashing basic freedoms. When the latter happens, the terrorists have won in Australia and everyplace else where liberty is valued.

Richard Pretorius, who spent most of August in Australia, teaches journalism at Catholic University.

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