Friday, 19 December 2014

The Uses and Abuses of Fear

A few weeks ago I wrote about the idea of "lone wolf terrorism".  Now we have had our own version of the same thing, a terrifying and spectacular act of violence in which an Iranian immigrant called Man Horan Monis held a group of staff and customers hostage in a cafe in Sydney's Martin Place for 16 hours.  The standoff ended with Monis' death and that of two of his hostages.

In its wake, government leaders and commentators have been asking the same question I did.  Was Monis a terrorist, or was he just a criminal?  On the one hand, he had a history of espousing radical Islamism and claimed to be acting in support of the Islamic State.  On the other hand, he didn't even have an IS flag to display, and had to ask police negotiators to bring him one.  His previous crimes appear to include writing hate letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan along with violence of a less political nature including a string of sexual assaults and being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.  He claimed to be an Islamic cleric but he doesn't appear to have had a congregation.  Whatever his stated religious and political views, he just sounds like a psychopath.

Of course this is a terrible crime, and his choice of location - in the heart of the Sydney CBD, across the road from the Channel 7 studios - ensured maximum publicity.  We have had several suburban sieges in Queensland this year and none have had the kind of saturation media coverage devoted to this one.

However, I would like to challenge my readers to discuss this crime without using the word "terrorism".  The more I hear the term used the more I think it is misleading, a term designed to confuse and distract rather than to explain and promote understanding.  Terrorism is a term people use to defame their enemies.

A terrorist, you might say, is someone who sets out to create fear in order to promote some kind of political aim.  However, all sorts of people and institutions do this.  Sometimes we call it other things.  In criminal law we talk about "deterrence" - we use the fear of the consequences of crime (fines or imprisonment) to dissuade people from committing crimes.  Over a number of years now Australian governments have used fear to dissuade people from arriving by boat to seek asylum, upping the fear level each time it appears the approach is not working.  We maintain a well trained and well equipped army to deter other countries from invading us or attempting to harm our interests overseas.

In order to assess these uses of fear, it is not enough to label someone a "terrorist".  We need a more nuanced and informed approach to the question.  I would suggest that we need to ask three questions of any use of fear.
  1. What is the objective of the use of fear, and is this objective legitimate or supportable?
  2. Is the use of fear, and the methods used to induce it, ethically justifiable?
  3. Is it effective?
The first question is, in many ways, the most difficult.  Who is to say what is a legitimate aim?  We can probably all agree that robbing a bank is not a legitimate objective, while preventing theft or murder is.  All of my readers probably agree with me that the creation of a totalitarian state based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia Law (or indeed any other kind of totalitarian state) is also an illegitimate aim.  

However, others have used fear in pursuit of aims that are more ambivalent.  The IRA bombed civilian targets in pursuit of Northern Ireland's independence from the United Kingdom, an objective which readers may not support but which they could hardly regard as inherently evil.  Menachem Begin's Irgun group in the 1940s used the creation of fear as a weapon in the struggle to create an Israeli state, while Hamas uses similar tactics now to create a Palestinian one.  I have good friends who support both objectives.  The aim of "stopping the boats" is highly contested in Australian politics but most of us would at least agree that it would be much better if people did not have to risk drowning at sea to secure asylum.

The second question is strongly linked to the first but addresses a different issue and can be framed in two parts - is the creation of fear justified by the objective, and is the method and process for its creation reasonable?  Good criminal law has a way of addressing both these questions.  The consequences, and hence the level of fear, are carefully calibrated to the seriousness of the crime - a jay-walker will receive a modest fine, a murderer a long jail sentence.  The means for its administration are also carefully regulated - there is a process of natural justice which ensures the person's guilt is adequately proved before the penalty is applied.  I say "good criminal law"because it is easy to abuse this process.  Australia was founded by men and women who were transported for life as a punishment for petty theft.

It is easy to conclude that Monis' siege was a illegitimate method for creating fear, as is the recent Taliban attack on a Pakistani school that killed 148 people, 132 of them students.  No objective could justify holding a group of non-combatant city workers at gunpoint and ultimately killing some of them, or shooting school children at their lessons.  When Irgun targeted British military installations the answer is a little more ambivalent, although the bombing of the King David Hotel with its staff of civilian administrators, including may Israelis, seems to more clearly tip the balance to the negative.

We could say the same about Scott Morrison's current crusade against asylum seekers,  Whatever you think of the aim of "stopping the boats", surely the process of indefinite detention violates the kind of natural justice and proportionality built into criminal law.  People are imprisoned without trial, the conditions under which they are detained are inhumane and we are detaining children who could not possibly be held responsible for the position in which they find themselves - and all for arriving on our shores without the proper paperwork.

What are we to say of other acts of war?  Was the CIA's torture of prisoners captured in the invasion of Afghanistan (the use of fear to secure cooperation with interrogation) justified by the use to which their information could be put?  Was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified by the hastening of the end of the war?  We are forced into a calculation of the value of different people's lives, weighing those of the Japanese civilians against those of the American servicemen whose lives were spared by hastening the surrender.  How can we make such calculations?

The final question is not directly ethical, but will affect our judgement nonetheless - does it work?  Does creating fear achieve the objective, or is it ineffective or even counter-productive?

It is not easy to answer this question in Monis' case because his aims are unclear.  He claimed to support the creation of the Islamic State but this is a very imprecise goal and we don't know if he had any more immediate ones.  Perhaps he revealed an immediate objective to the police negotiators but they were reluctant to publicise it.  Perhaps he didn't have one beyond creating mayhem and drawing attention to himself.

In a more general sense, fear helps people to gain their objectives in a number of different ways.  Most immediately, it gains compliance from those in the immediate vicinity.  If someone points a gun at me, I will generally do what they tell me even if I wouldn't do so otherwise.

In a wider sense, fear can shape my actions at a distance under a number of conditions.  Firstly, the fear needs to be credible - I need to feel the fear, to believe that the thing I fear will take place if I don't comply.  A man pointing a gun at me is credible and I will do what he says.  However, I remember in my teenage years being held up on my way home from school by a child wielding a cricket ball and demanding all my money.  I laughed at him and kept walking.

Secondly, the actions it seeks to shape need to be rational and premeditated.  Fear of lengthy imprisonment may be enough to stop me plotting and carrying out the murder of my enemy because this is a calculated, deliberate crime.  It is less likely to stop me from killing him in a fit of rage, since at that point I am not thinking rationally.  

Thirdly, the fear needs to outweigh my desire to do the opposite.  If I was a bank teller and a person holding a gun told me to hand over the money I would give it to them without hesitation.  If they commanded me to kill one of my co-workers I would be a lot more likely to refuse - at least I hope so!  This is the practical problem faced by the Australian Government in its efforts to use fear to stop seafaring asylum seekers.  These people are already being driven by other fears - the fear of arbitrary imprisonment, torture or death in their home countries.  It takes a very strong fear to overcome this, and it is the strength of this fear which has eventually driven our own response to its current disproportionate level.  

The Australian government, with the support of almost the entire population (it is never safe to say "all") is determined to continue to oppose Islamic totalitarianism and it will take a much more powerful fear than that created by Man Monis to change that stance.  However, this fear does drive us to agree to some things we would normally reject - increased surveillance, reduced accountability for our security services, greater powers of arbitrary detention and limits on freedom of association.  In this sense, perhaps those who want to use fear to influence our political direction are having more success than we like to admit.

The question of effectiveness is important because it asks us to think more creatively, and perhaps more humanely, about how we achieve our aims.  We know that fear has only limited success in reducing crime, and that alongside this method we need to use strategies that reduce poverty, address the consequences of childhood abuse and support rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol addiction.  Greens Senator Scott Ludlum has drawn attention to a range of alternative policy approaches to the deterrence approach to asylum seekers.  And what of our "anti-terror" laws themselves?  Ironically they rely to a large extent on creating fear amongst would-be offenders.  This is unlikely to work on disturbed young men who are ready to die for the cause.  What is our Plan B?

None of this leads us to a neat conclusion.  The use of fear is not always a bad thing.  Even the use of deadly force can be justified in some circumstances.  Exactly what those circumstances are is a matter of fierce debate.  Few people would agree with Monis that his actions were a justifiable use of fear.  However, he and those like him are far from having a monopoly on unjustifiable fear.  
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