Placing the terror threat in perspective may help provide a nuanced response

Malcolm Turnbull has called for a more robust dialogue on national security, where measures are free to be challenged. AAP/Stefan Postles

In a recent speech, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned against overstating the threat posed by Islamic State (IS). Whether Turnbull is playing his own political game is for others to decide. But his commentary does seem to contradict Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s clumsy rhetoric on terrorism over the past 12 months.

Abbott’s continual use of colourful language when talking terror exaggerates the threat in Australia, is divisive for Muslim community groups and could quite possibly play into the hands of IS’s sophisticated recruitment strategies. As Turnbull puts it, Australia needs to be careful not to get:

… sucked in to their strategy … and become amplifiers of their wickedness and significance.

Is Australia getting sucked in – or, as Abbott puts it, “brainwashed”?

Government response

In his opening remarks at a recent two-day summit on countering violent extremism, Abbott claimed Australia is facing a “hydra-headed monster” in IS:

Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: submit or die.

Abbott went on:

… the tentacles of the death cult have extended even here as we discovered with the Martin Place siege last December … You can’t negotiate with an entity like this; you can only fight it.

There is no doubt that Australia needs a robust national security or counter-terrorism posture. The government is devoting billions of dollars to counter the threat IS poses.

Whether this funding has aided government agencies in their work is hard to establish. Over the past 12 months, ASIO, the AFP and state police have been fortunate – if not lucky – to have thwarted several IS-inspired acts, with a couple of plots in their final stages of preparation. In most, the perpetrators have been lone actors who had not previously come to the attention of these agencies.

Sacrificing freedoms

So, has Abbott gone overboard in his response to IS? And is Turnbull right in providing a more balanced perspective? The answer to both questions is quite probably yes.

Comparing the deaths as a result of acts of terrorism to other serious crime paints an interesting picture. Australian crime statistics between 2012 and 2014 show that there are, on average, around 250 murder victims, 620 kidnapping and abduction victims and 19,200 sexual assault victims per year. Between 700 and 1000 women and children have been killed by their partners or parents in domestic homicides.

So, while even the extraordinarily rare fate of being murdered is vastly more common than terrorism, the government appears obsessed with it.

Arguably, as a result of Abbott’s posturing on terrorism over the past year, Australians are at the point of sacrificing some of their most basic freedoms – such as freedom of speech or the right to citizenship. Abbott warned Australians in 2014 when he said that the “delicate balance” between freedom and security may have to shift for some time in view of the increasing terror risk.

Abbott went on to say:

After all, the most basic freedom of all is the freedom to walk the streets unharmed and to sleep safe in our beds at night.

Rhetoric has serious implications

It’s hard to take some of Abbott’s rhetoric on terrorism seriously. It can be hoped that people haven’t armed themselves in expectation of IS militants coming through their bedroom windows.

There is, however, a very serious side to the language leaders use and the subsequent media reporting. From my recent discussions with Muslim community representatives in Melbourne and Sydney, it is clear that the language Abbott uses has been damaging and is potentially harming Australia’s social cohesion.

Abbott’s language when he called on Muslim leaders to take more responsibility to address the spread of radicalisation in their communities had the reverse effect. It almost alienated those who we sorely need to help tackle the issues underlying radicalisation within Australian society.

Some Muslim community representatives have spoken out to criticise the government’s counter-terrorism efforts. Turnbull called for a more robust dialogue on national security where people are free to critique any measures:

Denouncing those who question the effectiveness of new national security measures as “friends of terrorists” is as stupid as describing those who advocate them as “proto-fascists”.

It is not hard to see that the government’s focus on terrorism has become disproportionate when compared to the attention given to other serious crimes. Abbott has made terrorism – particularly IS-inspired acts – the number one national security concern, despite very little empirical evidence to justify his concern in Australia.

There is a threat of terrorist attacks in Australia. But, at some point, the clumsy language leaders use will have to stop if we are truly going to address the threat of terrorism.