Australian anti-terrorism laws: have they gone too far?

A series of events in Australia in recent days have left me, frankly, shocked and surprised. The first was an incident in which the police shot and killed an 18-year-old. Technically he’s a man, but I call him a boy. A silly and very naive boy. A brainwashed jihadist. A supporter of ISIL, a Muslim extremist group, who wants to destroy us all for no other reason than who we are and how we live. He drew the authorities’ attention for some of the things he said on social media, such as wanting to behead the police, covering their bodies with the ISIS flag, and posting the images online. He also made death threats against the Australian Prime Minister.

Very surprisingly and quite ironic, the police decided to deal with this by taking a fairly low-key approach. Instead of a dawn raid and arrest at gunpoint, they invited him to come see them at the police station. They arranged a time and he appeared to be greeted by two officers outside the station. What happened next will be the subject of an official investigation. But it seems that when one of the policemen tried to shake his hand in greeting, the 18-year-old pulled out a knife and began to attack the two policemen. One of the police officers is believed to have fired a single fatal shot at the 18-year-old. It was tragic and pointless.

This young man was seen talking to older men before this incident occurred, which supports the idea that he was not acting alone. He first came to the attention of the police and intelligence authorities three months ago because he was part of a small group of men who shared messages that preached violence and hatred. Authorities were concerned that he might try to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq, so they canceled his passport.

The second disturbing report was an allegation of a second separate attack on a serving member of the Australian Army who was walking down the street minding his own business. The catalyst for the attack was the fact that he was wearing the uniform of the Australian Army. In a recent incident, police now say the attack did not occur, but it was enough for Australian Defense Forces chiefs to issue an order for defense forces personnel not to wear their uniform in public. Reports of these two incidents coincide with ISIL’s use of social media to ask its supporters to attack indiscriminately. They were told that they did not need the authority of a high ranking Muslim cleric, that they should go ahead and wage jihad and that God was on their side. These people seem to have the illusion that we are in the Middle Ages fighting some kind of mythical crusade. Muslim versus Christian. The most disturbing thing is that several young Muslims from various Western countries believe in this nonsense. What worries me most about these developments is that it could be a double-edged sword. We have to be concerned about radicalized jihadists, but we should also be equally concerned about insane jobs that want to target Muslims for being Muslims. Vandalism and graffiti incidents have been reported, but luckily there was no violence.

Here’s a little reality check.

The vast majority of Muslims in Australia, or anywhere else in the world, are not defined by what the Islamic State does in Iraq and Syria. They are peace loving people who believe in tolerance, benevolence and humanity. As President Obama rightly pointed out, No God tolerates terror.

But there is no denying that these incidents scare people and when people get scared they lose perspective and forget to think and respond rationally.

And what generally follows is that other unfortunate by-product: the rights and freedoms we’ve come to expect and accept are suddenly threatened.

The Australian Prime Minister said so the other day. In a speech clearly aimed at softening the country, he said that some freedoms must be sacrificed to protect the vast majority. He called on Australians to support this change in what he called the delicate balance between freedom and security. We are just beginning to find out what this really means. In the Federal Parliament, late at night, a bill was passed giving Australia’s national spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, unprecedented and unfettered power to monitor the entire Internet. Australian. All that is required is an authorization. It was approved with bipartisan support, so the Opposition clearly agreed with the Government. ASIO may copy, delete or modify the data stored on any computer that it has an authorization to monitor. It also allows ASIO to disrupt target computers and use unselected innocent third-party computers as a way to access target computers. Many lawyers and academics say this bill goes too far. Australian Attorney General George Brandis says we better get used to living in this “dangerous new era”. It is vital, he said, equipping those who protect Australia with the necessary powers and capabilities to do their jobs.

That’s all well and good, but what about checks and balances? Where are they? How can we be sure that ASIO won’t abuse these massive new powers? And if these questions worry you, and you should be, then what I’m about to tell you should worry you even more. The bill also allows journalists, whistleblowers and bloggers who “recklessly” divulge information related to a special intelligence operation to be jailed for ten years. Take this. Any operation can be declared “special” by an ASIO agent. It also grants ASIO immunity from criminal and civil liability in certain circumstances. In other words, it makes them practically untouchable.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m totally in favor of giving law enforcement the powers they need to do their job, but that doesn’t mean they have an open checkbook. And going after whistleblowers and journalists by providing the necessary balance, threatening them with a heavy prison sentence, is not a good thing in a democratic country. It is very much the case of shooting the messenger. Of course, with the threat of a ten-year prison sentence on them, the whistleblowers will be extinguished. I am sure that is exactly what governments around the world want to happen. Sorry, but I don’t trust ASIO not to abuse its powers. Unless we have something or someone to watch closely on behalf of all of us, there is a danger that the supposed cure will end up being much worse than the disease.