Borderlands e-journal logo All issues all issues Guidelines rollover Guidelines for contributors
Debates rollover About rollover About borderlands e-journal
Reviews Reviews rollover Editorial team rollover Editorial team
terror australisArrow vol 4 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 1, 2005


Terror Australis:
Security, Australia and the 'War on Terror' Discourse

Katrina Lee Koo
Australian National University


1. From the 2002 ASIO Act Amendment Bill and the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Bill to the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Kit to the recent general acceptance that Mamdouh Habib should remain a man 'of interest in a security context' (Marriner, 2005) despite being released, without charge, after three years of detention by a foreign power, it is clear that there is something powerful driving the discourses of security, terrorism and counter-terrorism in this country today. When 'the Lucky Country', without widespread criticism, submits to counter-terrorism laws that expand the power of the executive and weaken the judicial procedures that protect Australian citizens (Hocking, 2003), when it is blitzed by an advertising campaign that encourages it to spy on its neighbours (McDonald, 2005b), and when a majority of the nation are either unperturbed or in favour of the seemingly indefinite detention of its citizens by foreign powers without charge (Aly, 2005, see also Savage, 2005), then important questions need to be asked about the politics of Australia's security practices and the discourses that enables it to function.

2. Since September 11, 2001 there has been an intense normalising practice in place with regard to Australian security. The result of this practice is an unquestioning acceptance that the changes in lifestyle, the deprivation of certain liberties and the lack of human empathy when dealing with others are necessary to ensure security. From changes in airport security procedures (DOTARS, 2002) to the ASIO home raids that took place across Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in October and November 2002 (Bannerman, 2002), there seemed plausibility in the argument that there must inevitably be, as ASIO Director-General Dennis Richardson argued, 'a further lowering of the risk tolerance threshold' (Quoted in Bannerman, 2002). Consequently, the threats of terrorism and the practices of counter-terrorism have become normalised into everyday life. Social and political life in Australia has become reconceptualized to include the imminent possibilities of terrorism, the need for eternal vigilance and the acceptance that certain sacrifices need to be made to protect the greater community.

3. The purpose of this essay is to retreat from the seeming omnipotence of this discourse and ask important a priori questions, questions that have been sidelined in the struggle to protect society against this new threat. Amidst the dust of the Twin Towers, the tragedy of the 2002 attack in Bali and the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the politics of Australian security has become so captivated by the aesthetic of terrorism and so pre-occupied by the functions of counter-terrorism that it forgets to ask itself important questions. While we certainly need to critically reflect upon questions such as, 'what constitutes terrorism? who are the terrorists? where do we confront them and how?' we just as urgently need to critically analyse how we think about these questions. In particular, we need to ask: 'What is this discourse of terrorism? Who generates it? How does it enable the kinds of changes we are seeing in our society, and are they consistent with the broader notions of security to which we aspire?' It is this second set of questions, so intimately related to the first, which are often neglected despite their centrality to the practice of Australian security.

4. While recognising the importance of the first, this essay seeks to engage this second set of questions. In essence, this essay examines what should be an uneasy relationship between Australia's pursuit of security and the current US inspired 'War on Terror' discourse. My analysis of this 'War on Terror' discourse draws from the various speeches, interviews, policy documents and statements made by President Bush and his closest advisors. Discourse is understood here as a language enabled by social and political power which in turns allows the world to be described, spoken about and understood in ways that become hierarchically ordered (Connolly, 1993: 2). The 'War on Terror' discourse is framed by a politically sanctioned vocabulary, such as 'axis of evil', 'evil doers', 'freedom loving peoples' (Jackson, 2005: Ch. 3) which then assists in establishing criteria to judge particular actions, like the bombing of Afghanistan and policies like 'rendition'. Consequently, the 'War on Terror' discourse is profoundly shaped by the political power of the Bush Administration and its neoconservative view of the world. Often, this particular way of describing and understanding the world then achieves the status of 'true knowledge'--at least among key actors and institutions. From such a point the policies undertaken achive the status of 'necessity' and 'common sense'. This essay argues that the 'War on Terror' discourse facilitates the presentation of certain security policies in Australia as being both necessary and common sense. Furthermore, it argues that far from simply managing what ought to be an uneasy relationship, the Howard Government has seamlessly absorbed the essence of this 'War on Terror' discourse into the politics of Australian security.

5. This essay, therefore, seeks to retreat from the 'common sense knowledge' proffered by the 'War on Terror' discourse to instead trace how this discourse became accepted in Australia. Firstly, the essay argues that the adoption of Bush's 'War on Terror' discourse reinforces many of the underlying assumptions that have been present throughout Australia's search for security in international relations since Federation. From that time, in one form or another, the dominant Australian security politics has demonstrated four rigid commitments: a belief in its own insecurity, a faith in a statist ethic, a commitment to the practices of violence and, finally, a repetition of certain identity practices. Secondly, this essay argues that the 'War on Terror' discourse not only reinforces and naturalises these foundations of Australian security but also intensifies it in ways that need to be questioned. The familiarity of the 'War on Terror' discourse, and the ease with which it has become assimilated into the Australian security project, has resulted not only in increasingly violent and intrusive security policies both at home and abroad, but also a lack of sustained public debate about them. To this end, this essay begins by briefly examining the foundations of Australia's security. It then uses this analysis to demonstrate how the Bush-inspired discourse evolved in the Australian context and what its implications might be for the manner in which Australia confronts its current security challenges.

The Origins of Australia's security project

6. An understanding of Australia's security has been founded upon certain subjective 'truths' about its place in the world. A notion of the 'Tyranny of Distance'--whether understood as distance from its 'Great and Powerful Friends' or used to describe the vastness of the continent--has been interpreted by successive policymakers since Federation as a cause of fear and insecurity and as making Australia vulnerable to threat and danger (Smith, et al , 1996: 20-25). Australia has sought to mitigate this dilemma of its insecurity by projecting force abroad. Not to negate its many diplomatic successes, Australia's security has, undeniably, been based upon an appeal to the use of force (see Millar, 1991). This notion of a vast and indefensible land so distant from its Anglo-American allies has, at least in part, been the foundation of Forward Defence policies that have seen Australians fight overseas in well over a dozen wars (Cheeseman, 1993: xvii). From the Maori Wars in 1875 to the Iraq conflict in 2003 and a stream of conflicts in between, Australia has been involved in 'Other People's Wars' to which the geo-strategic and even political relevance to Australia could be questioned. The argument that distant overseas conflicts pose direct threats to Australia which are best thwarted by attachment to a powerful ally reflects not so much the search for security as the fear instilled by insecurity, a sense of imminent threat, and a belief in constant danger. It is difficult to interpret the Australian Government as anything other than disingenuous when, in its 2004 publication Protecting Australia Against Terrorism it stated:

An island continent, Australia has been physically isolated from most of the wars, conflicts and tensions that have affected other parts of the globe. This relative isolation gave us a sense of security which was, for the most part, well-founded (PM&C, 2004: 6).

7. Both the conflict in Iraq and the current Australian Government's policy towards the detention of asylum seekers, for example, continue to suggest a perennially insecure nation. Involvement in the Iraq conflict demonstrates the continued presence of a 'Forward Defence' mentality (Camilleri, 435: 447). Meanwhile, current asylum seeker policy also illustrates a continuation of the 'vulnerable border' mentality which in times past has been directed towards potentially threatening states, but is now mostly directed towards capturing or deterring those attempting to claim asylum in Australia.

8. At this point, a number of elements of an Australian security politics can be discerned. The first is a demonstrated commitment to a state-centric view of security, which is significant in two regards. Firstly, the state is revered as the primary referent object for Australia's security. While clearly not the first to do so, the current Coalition Government has demonstrated the core commitment that their conceptualisation of Australian security has to this kind of statism. At the height of the 2001 Tampa crisis Howard told the nation 'We have a single irrevocable view on this, and that is that we will defend our borders and we'll decide who comes to this country' (quoted in Kingston, 2001). Secondly, not only is the state the centre of Australia's security project, it also defines that project's parameters. As the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 demonstrated, the state security project (as defined controversially by its leaders) holds a monopoly on the legitimate knowledge of what constitutes a threat. It is this knowledge that is taken seriously, as opposed to the voices of tens of thousands of Australian protesters who objected to Australia's involvement (AAP, 2003). Consequently, the state defines what is necessary to provide its own security.

9. From wars in foreign lands to programs of border protection, Australian foreign policy is literally littered with references, narratives and policies about the state's preoccupation with its own security (Burke, 2001). Consequently, if we are to gain any reflective understanding of Australian security then we must examine its commitment to statism. While it may be imprudent to generalise about the history of Australian security, the privileged relationship between security and the state is one that has endured under Liberal and Labor Governments alike. As the monopoliser of 'legitimate knowledge' about national security it is often the state that defines what the political is, where it is located, and what it might or should be (Walker, 1997: 68). In this sense, it is the political leadership which sets the national security agenda, frames the national security discourse and decides what can or cannot be legitimately considered a security concern. In the context of Australia's recent foreign policy, for example, questions of refugees are considered paramount threats to the state which are contextualised within a discourse of national security rather than human rights or international law. Similarly, the crisis in Iraq was portrayed, should weapons of mass destruction fall into the wrong hands, as constituting a 'clear, undeniable and lethal threat' (Howard, 2003) to Australia and thereby framed within a security discourse that appealed to state militarism rather than international institutions or legal norms. Clearly, the certainty and dominance of a state based imagining of security limits the possibilities for a broad account of security, the possibility of dealing with major crisis in other ways and the effects that these policies may have on the security of others.

10. To complicate matters further, the state not only defines and embodies security but also, in some cases, acts as a mediator, or a layer of insulation, between citizens and the securitising process. In putting at least one degree of separation between 'us' and security, the state becomes a kind of filter. Accordingly, security is performed in our name, but not necessarily or directly by our hands. Consequently, the state streamlines security, it makes morally and ethically difficult decisions for us without our having to think about it or often see the consequences of it. Off-shore processing centres for asylum-seekers, detention facilities in remote areas and the creation of displaced persons from recent conflicts are all consequences of Australia's current security practices that do not require 'us' to take individual responsibility or moral accountability for. Our detachment from these consequences is enabled because the state, as our filter between the Inside and the Outside, and ourselves and our Others, desensitises, rationalises, legitimises and bureaucratises processes of security on our behalf, to which we need provide only our silent acquiescence or in some cases vocal support. Consider, for example, the recent case of Mamdouh Habib. Lawyer Julian Burnside wrote in The Age :

The overwhelming inference is that the Australian Government knew or suspected that Habib had been tortured.... It must have known that the mistreatment was designed to obtain evidence that could only be admissible in a trial that lacked the basic requirements of fairness. And it certainly knew that the victims of this mistreatment included two Australian citizens. The alternative, only slightly less disturbing, is that our Government simply did not care how the Americans treated Australian citizens (Burnside, 2005).

11. Furthermore, there was not widespread condemnation of the Government's inaction from the Australian public (Savage, 2005). This is illustrative of two points. Firstly, there is a naturalised acceptance that security can, and perhaps should, involve violence and the unethical treatment of potential threats (even if those threats are Australian citizens). Secondly, it demonstrates that there is a happy acceptance that this process should be endorsed or carried out by the state. Assuming (or perhaps hoping) that most Australians would agree that the use of torture, the use of policies like 'rendition', imprisonment without charge, denial of basic legal rights and abuse of human rights are inconsistent with the stated goals of a democratic state like Australia, then we are left with the question as to how these kinds of violent and oppressive policies become acceptable or fit comfortably within a discourse of security.

12. Australia's state-based security project has infused into Australian society an acceptance of the practices of violence, both structural and physical, as an acceptable means of achieving security. In each of the major foreign policy challenges facing Australia since the inception of this 'War on Terror' (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the treatment of Hicks and Habib, the addressing of regional terrorism and the more aggressive refugee policies) we see in both the discourse of security and the development of security policy an acceptance of the violence committed against the Other as a 'necessary evil.' Sections of the public become apathetic to 'yet another military strike against Iraq', even hostile to 'yet another boatload of refugees from war-torn Afghanistan' (Hogue, 2003: 204). Yet, this is not simply an acceptance of the violence committed against the Other in the name of 'our' security, there is also an expectation that this violence is necessary and deserved. This appeal to 'necessary evils' finds its logic in the assumption that violence in the name of security is an inherent aspect of international relations. Is this really the case? Heavily influenced by Realist logic, the inter-relationship in Australia between the state, its power and its security 'become the necessary effects of anarchy, contingency and disorder that are assumed to exist independent of and prior to any rational or linguistic conception of them' (Der Derian, 1995: 30). In Australia's case, violence as a path to security within such a framework is not presented as an option, but a necessity to abate the ever present reality of violent insecurities. However, New Zealand does not see the need to adopt such aggressive policies towards either refugees (AAP, 2005) or the war in Iraq and has not suffered as a result.

13. The scripting of violence into the accepted conceptualisation of Australian security is both an effect of, and a foundation for, security's discourse. As Patricia Molloy suggests, 'violence in the name of the state is not just an instrument of security, but also an 'effect' of its discourse' (Molloy, 1992: 229). The power of the discourse in Australian foreign policy legitimates the practices of violence in the name of national security. This perversion of security has, as Hans Morgenthau identified, created an amoral space within which the powerful states 'do as they will' in the name of their own protection and security (Morgenthau, 1948: 10). Middle powers like Australia either follow or face the anarchical world alone. Yet rather than questioning the violence inherent in the practice of (particularly US) security, Australia chooses to support this notion of security both militarily and discursively. Thus, '[m]odern discourses of security essentially work as sites of transgression, as places where violence and knowledge can legitimately converge' (Walker, 1997: 71). As Beeson (2003) points out, Australia's vocal support of this discourse only encourages and reinforces the acceptability of the US' commitment to violent security practices and further legitimates and naturalises the knowledge upon which it is based. If we step outside the discourse, then calls to 'sink the Tampa ' or ASIO home raids and powers of detention, or even the existence of the Anti-Terrorism Kit should be evidence of the manner in which this conceptualisation of security can naturalise the use of violence (Burke, 2001: 322; McDonald 2005b). While this is not to suggest that threats don't exist, we must recognise there is a selective politicisation of danger and an unwarranted yet persuasive manipulation of fear in Australian politics today that feeds into a powerful discourse of violent security.

14. Finally, the acceptance of violence against those who may be perceived as a threat to the Australian state are enacted only by an acceptance of a threatening and inferior Other in Australian security processes (Poynting et. al. , 2004). This Other, in the Australian experience at least, is a self-referential abstraction: it refers to an identity with no voice, no context, no ordinary human genealogy and no idea about what is good for it. Such Others are not known as individuals but rather as a generalised identity, as groups, masses or even hordes. More importantly, the Other exists outside our moral community and therefore is not entitled to access our political space or our political values. Furthermore, we are not encouraged to empathise with their experience of politics, nor are we expected to shudder at the violence committed against them. In short, we are not obliged by any ethical responsibility to them (McDonald, 2005) . They are only known, consequently, in terms of their differences with respect to ourselves. Historically, they have been, amongst others, the Vietnamese (both from the North and the South), the Japanese and Aborigines (see Burke, 2001). In recent Australian foreign policy they are the Iraqi civilians, the people of Afghanistan, the refugees fleeing from those conflicts to the Australian shores and, for many, the Arab Muslim migrant (see Poynting et. al., 2004).

15. In many ways, the politics of Otherness is the central lynchpin of Australia's security project. Both statism and violence are held together by the identity practices of Othering which have been evident throughout Australia's history to the present (see Burke, 2001). On the one hand, John Howard reminds Australia that we are a benevolent people, warm and big-hearted, as was so clearly evident in the overwhelmingly generous response to the 2004-5 Tsunami appeal (Benns and Walsh, 2005). Yet, on the other hand, Australia has been deafeningly silent in response to other particular elements of our Other's insecurities. So quick to help the Acehnese in the wake of the Tsunami, there has been a long silence regarding the non-natural and highly politicised violence visited upon them in recent decades (see Kingsbury, 2003). Similarly, in a wave of excitement to liberate the Iraqis, little is said by the Howard Government about the up to 100,000 Iraqis killed as a result of the military intervention (Stein, 2004). So it is a complex and powerful identity politics that enables, on the one hand, a belief in our nation's benevolence and commitment to freedom and on the other hand, such violent security practices. But what is perhaps more concerning now (but not surprising) is the ease with which these foundations of Australian security have been so amenable to the discourses of terrorism elucidated by the Bush Administration.

Australian Security and the 'War on Terror' Discourse

16. There are two reasons why the current dominant discourse of terrorism has been so easily embedded in Australia's experience of security. The first recognises that what we are seeing in Australian security today may be an intensification of past practices but is not a dramatic departure from the ideas that have littered the experiences of Australian foreign policy. In this sense, the discourses of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Australia are empowered by a sense of continuity and common sense that seems to flow from the historical repetition of an idea or approach. Regardless of the sudden and graphic disruption caused by the events of September 11, 2001, Australia's fundamental conceptualisation of security did not dramatically shift after that event. It remains committed to the principles related above. In this sense then, there is evidence to continue to locate this conceptualisation of security overwhelmingly within the Realist tradition of foreign policy.

17. Yet while the notion of continuity is an important element in naturalising the terrorism discourse into Australia's security practice, as McDonald (2005) points out, we cannot understate the effect of September 11, 2001 on Australian foreign policy. The arguments on whether the events of September 11 changed the nature of international politics are complex and contested (see Rayner, 2002) but certainly Prime Minister John Howard argues that the world is now a more dangerous place. In response to this new threat there has been an intensification of the alliance with the US and a mimicking of much of Bush's neo-conservative inspired foreign policy. The Howard Government, at every opportunity, reminds Australians that we are living in a more dangerous world than we did on September 10, 2001. In 2004 Howard opened his Government's overview of counter-terrorism policy, Protecting Australia Against Terrorism by saying: 'The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 introduced a new and confronting dimension to the international security environment' (PM&C, 2004: v) and later '[t]he attacks of 11 September 2001 changed the global strategic environment.... Australia, as part of the Western world, was then--as it is now--a potential target' (PM&C, 2004: 2).

18. Consequently, according to Howard, this requires changes in the ways in which Australia confronts the world, and terrorism in particular. While some of these changes may have been in the pipeline before September 11, there has been an intensification of many policies since then. Firstly, Howard has reconceptualised the Australia-US alliance. While throughout the history of Australian foreign policy there has been consistent bipartisan support for the alliance (Smith, et. al. 1996: 61), it has been within the context of a broader good, ie, in pursuit of a national interest beyond the relationship with the United States. Be it a defence strategy or political ambition on the world stage, previous prime ministers have used the alliance with the United States as a means of achieving another purpose. Recent commentators, however, have argued that Howard has completely reconceptualised the foundation of the US alliance such that it is now an end in itself (Beeson, 2003). For better or worse, Australia has hitched its wagon to the United States as the sole driver of its security policy.

19. Secondly, Australia has followed the US lead on a number of controversial issues. The Howard Government has begun to mimic the Bush Administration's neo-conservative penchant for universalised/Americanised values of freedom and democracy. McDonald (2005) notes that post-September 11 White Papers speak less dominantly of the geo-strategic and political goals of national interest and are instead more focused on defending Australia's values and its lifestyle. Australia has also been quick to support and mimic the kinds of US foreign policies that mark a dramatic departure from traditional Realist theorising of Australian foreign policy. In addition to Australia's support for the retaliatory conflict in Afghanistan and the preventative war in Iraq, Australia has demonstrated its own forms of unilateralism, claims to regional hegemony and adoption of pre-emption style policies. The two elements of what has been termed the 'Howard Doctrine' demonstrate the extent to which the current government has been not only willing to accept the US lead on changes to the international system but to also adapt them into its own foreign policy. Part of the so-called 'Howard Doctrine' is, firstly, the suggestion that Australia would be the US' 'Deputy' in the region (Brenchley, 1999) and, secondly, the implication by Howard in December 2002 that he would be willing to take pre-emptive action if terrorists in a neighbouring country plotted an attack on Australia (Nicholson, 2004). On the back of the US National Security Strategy which had been released less than three months earlier, this represents a dramatic shift in thinking of the foreign policies of both the US and Australia. Furthermore, like its American ally, Australia has become less willing to involve itself in multilateral agreements and measures such as the International Criminal Court and Kyoto Protocol (McDonald, 2005c). Yet while some of these policies represent a dramatic diversion in the recent trajectory of international relations, they still reflect a sustained commitment to the conceptualisation of security outlined earlier.

20. It is within this climate of both continuity and change that the Howard Government absorbed the terrorism and counter-terrorism discourse of the Bush Administration. While this essay singles out Australia in particular, this is a discourse which has been adopted in varying degrees by a number of western governments since the events of September 11, with the UK being dominant among them (Jackson, 2005: 164). While most predominantly evident in the US, it can be argued that the political power of the 'War on Terror' discourse is drawn from a particularly insidious form of both politics and power. It is one which is enabled and maintained by the politics of fear, threat, danger and difference. For the United States, the fear is produced by the sense of vulnerability. From this perspective a discourse develops: 'If an ordinary person in the world's most militarily powerful nation can die in a horrific terrorist attack by just going to work, then it can happen to anyone. All Americans are possible targets. All Americans are under threat.' But let's step outside the discourse for a moment. Richard Jackson notes that in 2001 'casualties from terrorism were still vastly outnumbered by deaths from automobile accidents and pedestrian deaths, alcohol and tobacco-related illnesses, suicides and a great many diseases like influenza, cancer, rabies and liver disease' (2005: 92). Terrorism is certainly a threat but statistically an American is more likely to be killed in a car accident going to work then they are dying in terrorist attack on their work building. It is at this point that the power of the 'War on Terror' discourse becomes evident.

21. The language, tone, authority and legitimacy of the Bush Administration's 'War on Terror' discourse constructs terrorism as the single most dangerous threat facing the United States and indeed the world today. Arguably, this construction is readily enabled through an appeal to the politics of Otherness. The discursive strategies at play in the 'War on Terror' discourse are at once simplistic and binary in nature and incredibly powerful. The language of President Bush is apparently simple, clear and unambiguous. The self-identity is good/civilised/rational while the Other is evil/uncivilised/irrational. On the first anniversary of the September 11 tragedy, Bush told the U.S.:

The attack on our nation was also an attack on the ideas that make us a nation. Our deepest national conviction is that every life is precious, because every life is the gift of a Creator who intended us to live in liberty and equality. More than anything else, this separates us from the enemy we fight. We value every life; our enemies value none--not even the innocent, not even their own (Bush, 2002).

22. Imbued with the moral grammar of religion, righteousness, freedom and democracy, and founded within a moral geography that supports militarised defence and American exceptionalism, the production of the self and the creation of the Other identity assumes a prominent place in, and indeed encases, the post-September 11 'War on Terror' discourse. Just as I argued that identity is the lynchpin of the security project in Australia, so too, does Bush's 'War on Terror' discourse find itself framed within the need to protect those who are good, innocent, and in danger from the evil doers. This project is facilitated and enacted when the self identity--in this case, the 'ordinary American'--is humbled by danger, recognises the threat, and is willing, eager even, to incorporate 'new security measures' into their lifestyle.

23. For the United States, the changes in national security have seen not just the 'War on Terror' abroad but also changes at home. Heightened airport security, the USA PATRIOT Act, the establishment of the Office of Homeland Security and Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay and countless other human rights and civil liberties breaches have been enabled by this discourse as something which is 'necessary' for national security to be achieved in the United States. Unlike the US, the Australian mainland has not been a victim of the kind of tragedy that was seen in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. Yet the Howard Government has nonetheless successfully absorbed much of Bush's 'War on Terror' discourse and used it as an enabling tool for changes in Australia's own security practices. The current security practice that dominates thinking about Australian foreign policy is without doubt indebted to the United States and the terrorism discourse which has been developed, par excellence , by the Bush Administration.    

24. John Howard has successfully embedded Bush's 'War on Terror' discourse into the politics of Australian security on a number of levels. As in the US, this has resulted in important changes in the processes of Australian security. As the dust was still settling from the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City, Howard indicated to Bush that Australia would provide 'all the support that might be requested of us by the US in relation to any action that might be taken' (quoted in Woolcott, 2003). In turn, this blank cheque took the form of Australia's involvement in the first two major campaigns of the US-led 'War on Terror'. In the first instance this saw Australians deployed to Afghanistan (Wesley, 2002: 60-61). In 2003 Australians contributed a small but useful contingent to the US-led operations in Iraq (O'Connor, 2004: 207-8). In February of this year Howard broke an election promise by announcing that he would send a further 450 troops to Iraq at the cost of $300 million (Brissenden, 2005). In January of this year Mamdouh Habib was finally returned to Australia without charge. Habib, along with fellow Australian citizen David Hicks had been held at the US-controlled Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for over three years without support or intervention on their behalf from the Australian Government (Aly, 2005). While Hicks is due to stand trial in 2005, Habib was released without charge but has claimed to have been the victim of torture, abuse and rendition to Egypt. Similarly, in 2004 Australia was embroiled in another US controversy when it became evident to the world that gross prisoner abuses were taking place in the US-controlled detention facilities in Iraq. The controversy revolved around the extent to which the Minister of Defence and Australian Defence Force personnel knew about these abuses or had participated in the interviewing/interrogation of Iraqis (Ungerer, 2004: 582-583).

25. At home there have been significant changes in domestic security policy. In addition to the increased powers granted to ASIO in 2002 (see Hocking, 2002), Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, following the re-election of the Howard Government in October 2004, sought to fast track tough new anti-terrorism laws which will, amongst other provisions, give ASIO and the Australian Federal Police increased surveillance capabilities. ASIO Director-General Dennis Richardson recently described Australia's anti-terrorism laws as working well. He said: ' There is a misconception that terrorism has been used as an excuse by countries to rapidly introduce draconian laws that impinge on people's rights. I believe the legislative response to terrorism has, in fact, been quite measured' (quoted in Harpley, 2005).

26. This has not been the view of many civil liberties groups in Australia. Justice Michael Kirby recently commented: 'Every erosion of liberty must be thoroughly justified. Sometimes it is wise to pause. Always it is wise to keep our sense of proportion' (quoted in Hancock, 2002). A final, though some might suggest less direct, consequence of the 'War on Terror' discourse in Australia has been the tightening of border control and the Government's more aggressive dealings with asylum seekers. Around the time of the attack on the Twin Towers the Howard Government re-imagined asylum seekers out of a discourse on humanitarian or ethical or even international legal responsibility and into one of 'threat' and 'security'. Suddenly asylum seekers undermined Australia's sovereignty, violated its borders and needed to be deterred (McDonald, 2005). Furthermore, once embedded in this security discourse, it was not an enormous leap for the government to make to place asylum seekers in the 'War on Terror' discourse. On September 13, 2001 Defence Minister Peter Reith argued that the detention of asylum seekers was necessary because ' if you can't control who comes into your country then that is a security issue' and furthermore, he implied, it is potentially 'a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities' (Reith, 2001).

27. These changes in Australia's security practices have been enacted by, and are a product of, the 'War on Terror' discourse. What many would describe as breaches of civil liberties at home, breaches of human rights abroad, participation in a violent and seemingly unending 'War on Terror', and a lessening regard for ethical security practice has been enabled in Australia by the same politics outlined with regard to the US. As with Bush, Howard's discourse of terrorism is evident in a number of speeches, policy papers, interviews and announcements. Particularly central in promoting the discourse are both of the Government's 2004 terrorism papers, Protecting Australia Against Terrorism and Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia. At every opportunity, Howard like Bush reminds the nation that we are entering a new and more dangerous era. For example, both papers begin with reminding the reader of the 'new' threat and strategic environment. In Protecting Australia Against Terrorism the Prime Minister argues that the events of September 11, 2001 'introduced a new and confronting dimension to the international security environment' ( PM&C, 2004: v) while the latter states: 'Australia's security environment has changed. We are now directly threatened by a new kind of terrorism' (DFAT, 2004: vii, emphasis added). Embedded in this language is a recourse to fear and, a reminder to Australians that they are not safe in this new globalised security environment. That which makes us free--our open society, our democracy and commitment to globalisation--is that which also makes us vulnerable.

28. The constant reminder of danger is also evident in domestic Australian politics as it is in the U.S. The fear and sense of imminent threat was mobilised in the Government's attempt to make a direct link between the attacks on New York and Washington, the attacks in Bali a year later, and the need to commit troops to the war in Iraq. Transnational Terrorism describes terrorism's battlefield as global as 'it strives, where it can, for large scale, maximum casualty impact. We saw this on 11 September 2001. We felt it a year later in Bali.' The attempts to discursively link September 11 to Bali and to use it to justify the need to send troops to Iraq resulted in criticisms from not just the Federal Opposition but also the families of those killed in the Bali attacks (see McDonald, 2005). Similarly, the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Kit, Let's Look out for Australia and the introduction of a National Counter-Terrorism Alert System are omnipresent reminders of the constant danger. For example, the Alert System which, like the US system, is designed to inform citizens of the level of terrorist threat, operates on a scale of Low, Medium, High and Extreme, with Australia currently on a 'Medium' alert suggesting that there is a 'medium risk of terrorist attack in Australia.' This practically useless system does little other than heighten anxiety amongst Australians and remind them of their supposed constant vulnerability to terrorism--a vulnerability reinforced by the Government's statements that 'the threat posed by terrorism to our security is complex, broad-ranging and long-term in nature' ( PM&C, 2004: viii). Howard states: 'I cannot guarantee that we will not suffer a terrorist attack in Australia. But I can guarantee that the Australian Government will do all in its power to protect Australians against such an attack' ( PM&C, 2004: vi). Yet the Government's eagerness to expose our vulnerability to terrorism and eradicate any potential terrorist threat far surpasses its enthusiasm for addressing other threats to Australian life.

29. Despite the myriad of threats facing Australia, the terrorist threat requires nothing short of 'vigilance on all fronts' ( PM&C, 2004: vii) including the homefront. This need for vigilance is reflected in the setting up of a National Security Hotline which encourages Australians to report 'suspicious activity'. It also implies that Australians need to accept certain changes to their lifestyles. The Government will ensure that they have the right to live their lives 'as normal' but in return they need to adapt to the heightened security arrangements. These may include an acceptance of the anti-terrorism laws that have been introduced since 2001 and it may also mean that in order to focus upon protecting ourselves, we must relinquish our ethical responsibilities to others and their needs for security. These others are David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, they are the civilians of Iraq and the asylum seekers. They are also those 'bin Laden types' in our backyards (Poynting, et. al., 2004). Within these times of fear and danger, the 'War on Terror' discourse allows Australians to do whatever is necessary to defend themselves and their values against any potential threat.

30. Consequently, in the Australian context, binary identity politics of 'good' and 'evil' play a key role in enabling the 'War on Terror' discourse. It may be explained as neoconservative sympathising on the part of Howard, or simply an adoption of Bush's discourse to further domestic political ambitions, but more readily we are seeing in Howard's anti-terrorism vocabulary references to 'good Australian values' and their binary opposites. It is the former values that the 'War on Terror' seeks to defend. In Howard's foreword to Protecting Australia Against Terrorism , he states: 'We are determined to build counter-terrorism capabilities and to protect by all possible means the values that have given this country its strength and standing in the international community of democratic nations' (PM&C, 2004: v). These values, more explicitly, are 'respect for the right of every individual to safety and the freedom to pursue their goals peacefully and productively within the laws of our society' (PM&C, 2004: xii). We are forced to defend these values against our Others. 'Fundamentally,' the paper claims, 'Al Qaida targets us because of who we are and the values we uphold.' Furthermore, we are likely to remain a target because we are 'an open, liberal and secular society' (PM&C, 2004: vii).

31. This scripting of the self/ Other identity in Australia is the same politics that is at work in the United States. Regardless of the superficial analysis that explains away the atrocities of September 11 and Bali as events motivated by a hatred of our freedoms, there is still powerful and compelling identity politics at work here. While the Australian identity remains good and innocent, the Other seeks

to weaken our cultural traditions and individual freedoms through fear. It is inspired by an extreme and militant distortion of Islamic doctrine that oppose the values of the West and modernity. Muslim extremist terrorism is the principal force driving transnational terrorism... (PM&C, 2004: vii).

Furthermore, it is argued, 'Fear, division and intolerance are their means to weaken us' (DFAT, 2004: xii). One might be forgiven for thinking that fear, division and intolerance were the tactics used by the Howard Government as tools for embedding the 'War on Terror' discourse in Australia. While both Bush and Howard are careful to point out the differences between Muslim extremists and the faith of Islam, often the wider public discourse and the practical applications of anti-terrorist strategies lack the same subtleties (see Hage, 2003). This powerful process of widespread or blanket Othering in order to shore up, protect and defend who we are, has led to our lack of empathetic or ethical compassion for our Other. From the detention of asylum seekers to the rising casualty figures in Iraq, to the lack of concern of the treatment of Hicks, Habib and the Others at Camp X-Ray, the 'War on Terror' discourse has reinforced an unethical practice of security. And still militant Islamic terrorism endures, and we are not secure.


32. To return to this essay's key concern, we need to step outside the pervasive discourses of both terrorism and security to recognise the politics at play here.    After all, if security should be committed to the provision of safety and the preservation of life and the 'reality' is that one is more likely to die through a myriad of causes other than terrorism, then we need to ask why terrorism so captures the imagination. Zulaika and Douglass (1996: 14) suggest that particularly in the United States there is a 'burlesque use of terrorism' which is generated by the media (for ratings) and the government (for political benefits derived from fear generation and domestic political compliance). They argue (1996: 14) that '[t]he exaggerated and conspiratorial style of terrorism rhetoric itself should be a warning that we are dealing with political pathology.' In the wake of September 11 it becomes perhaps conceivable why many in the United States might be transfixed by this spectacle of terrorism.

33. What should be less clear, however, is how Australia has found itself similarly captivated and its current security practices similarly indebted to the same terrorism discourse. The 'War on Terror' discourse in Australia's context should require, at times, some major leaps in imagination. Even after the events in Bali, the terrorist rhetoric espoused by Howard still should require interpretive stretches to be considered politically viable. Yet it doesn't. The ease with which the U.S. 'War on Terror' discourse has been assimilated into the discourse and practice of Australia's security reflects the enduring commitments that both have to notions of statism, permanent threat and insecurity, and the acceptance of violence against those who may threaten us. In Australia this has resulted in the intensification of security practices which should be considered by a free and democratic society as distasteful and requiring careful national consideration. The possibilities of trans-national terrorist attacks in Australia are, undoubtedly, issues which need to be addressed. Yet we just as urgently need to critically reflect on how this nation imagines concepts like security and terrorism and examine the kinds of strategies enabled by the current 'War on Terror' discourse before we can determine whether or not such violent politics can ever achieve something we can legitimately call security.


Katrina Lee Koo is a Lecturer in International Relations at the Australian National University. She has previously published on gender, security and war in the Australian Journal of Political Science, Australian Journal of International Affairs and Borderlands. Email:


AAP. (2003). 'Protests Across Australia Against War'. Sydney Morning Herald , 14 April.

AAP. (2005). 'Tampa Refugees Become Kiwis'. Sydney Morning Herald , 8 April.

Aly, W. (2005). 'The Government's Guilt'. The Age , 4 February.

Bannerman, M. (2002). 'ASIO Raids Continue'. The 7.30 Report , . 31 October.

Beeson, M. (2003). 'Australia's Relationship with the United States: The Case for Greater Independence'. Australian Journal of Political Science , 38(3), November.

Benns, F.W.M. and Walsh, K. (2005). 'Generous Australians give $750,000 an hour'. The Sun Herald. 2 January.

Brenchley, F. (1999). 'The Howard Defence Doctrine'. The Bulletin . September 28.

Brissenden, M. (2005). 'Australia to send 450 more troops to Iraq'. The 7.30 Report , . 22 February.

Burke, A. (2001). In Fear of Security: Australia's Invasion Anxiety. Annandale NSW: Pluto Press Australia.

Burnside, J. (2005). 'What did our Government know?'.  The Age, 14 January.

Bush, George W. (2002). 'President's Remarks to the Nation'. . 11 September.

Camilleri, J. A. (2003). 'A Leap into the Past--in the Name of the 'National Interest''. Australian Journal of International Affairs . 57(3).

Cheeseman, G. (1993). The Search for Self-Reliance: Australian Defence Since Vietnam. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.

Connolly, W. E. (1993). The Terms of Political Discourse. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Der Derian, J. (1995). 'The Value of Security: Hobbes, Marx, Nietzche and Baudrillard'. In Ronnie D. Lipschutz, ed, On Security. New York: Columbia University Press.

DFAT (2004). Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

DOTARS (2002). 'Aviation Security Factsheets: Important Security Tips for Air Travellers'. Downloaded March 2005.

Grattan, M. (2005). 'Canberra Shackled and Shamed by Habib'. The Age , 30 January.

Hage, G. (2003). 'The anatomy of anti-Arab Racism'.  The Australian Financial Review . 14 August.

Hancock, N. (2002). Legislating for Terrorism. Research Note No. 25, 2001-02 . Parliament of Australia. . 19 February.

Harpley, Kellie, (2005). 'Anti-Terrorism Laws Measure Up'.,

Hocking, J. (2003). 'Counter-Terrorism and the Criminalisation of Politics: Australia's New Security Powers of Detention, Proscription and Control'. Australian Journal of Politics and History , 49(3), 355-371.

Hogue, C. (2003). 'Asylum seekers in Australia's International Relations'.  Australian Journal of International Affairs . 57(1).

Howard, J. (2003). 'Transcript of Howard's Press Conference'. Sydney Morning Herald, 18 March.

Jackson, R. (2005).  Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kingsbury, D. (2003).  Power Politics and the Indonesian Military. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Kingston, M. (2001). 'Before Too Long', 2001. Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October.

Marriner, C, Jamal, N and Banham, C. (2005). 'Habib set free from Guantanamo Bay'. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January.

McDonald, M. (2005).  'Constructing Insecurity: Australian Security Discourse and Policy Post-2001'.  International Relations, 19(3), September (forthcoming).

________ (2005b).  ''Be Alarmed? Australia's Anti-Terrorism Kit and the Politics of 
Security'. Global Change, Peace and Security, 17(2), June.

________ (2005c). 'Fair Weather Friend? Ethics and Australia's Approach to Global Climate Change'.  Australian Journal of Politics and History, forthcoming.

Millar, T. B. (1991).  Australia in Peace and War: External Relations Since 1788. Sydney: ANU Press.

Molloy, P. (1999). 'Face-to-Face With the Dead Man: Ethical Responsibility, State-Sanctioned Killing, & Empathetic Impossibility'. In D. Campbell and M. J. Shapiro, eds. Moral Spaces: Rethinking Ethics and World Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Morgenthau, H. (1966). Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 4th ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Nicholson, B. (2004). 'Howard Defiant: I would Launch A Strike'. The Age. 20 September.

O'Connor, B. (2004).  'Perspectives on Australian Foreign Policy, 2003'. Australian Journal of International Affairs . 58(2), June.

PM&C. (2004). Protecting Australia Against Terrorism: Australia's National Counter-Terrorism Policy and Arrangement . Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Poynting, S., Noble, G., Tabar, P., and Collins, J. 2004. Bin Laden in the Suburbs: Criminalising the Arab Other . Sydney: The Federation Press.

Rayner, T. (2002). 'Time and the Event: Reflections on September 11, 2001'. Theory & Event . 5(4).

Reith, P. (2001).  'Transcript of the Honourable Peter Reith MP: Radio Interview with Derryn Hinch'. 13 September.

Savage, C. (2005). 'Lives of the Australian Undead'. Griffith Review, Edition 7: The Lure of Fundamentalism.

Smith, G., Cox, D., and Burchill, S. (1996).  Australia in the World: An Introduction to Australian Foreign Policy. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Stein, R. (2004).  '100,000 Civilian Deaths Estimated in Iraq'. . 29 October.

Ungerer, C. (2004). 'Issues in Australian Foreign Policy, January to June 2004'. Australian Journal of Politics and History.  50(4).

Walker, R.B.J. (1997).  'The Subject of Security'. In K. Krause and M. Williams, eds. Critical Security Studies: Concepts and Cases. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wesley, M. (2002).  'Perspectives on Australian Foreign Policy, 2001'.  Australian Journal of International Affairs . 56(1), April.

Woolcott, R. (2003).  'Truth and Accountability in Public Policy: Implications for Australian foreign policy'. Occasional Paper. University of NSW: Australia-Asia Institute.

© borderlands ejournal 2005



To top of page to top of page spacer
ISSN 1447-0810