It doesn’t matter if it happens or not. It does not matter how probable the eventuality is. We are working in the higher realm of probabilities, designated as such by the police authorities who found, first, the possibility that there would be terrorist attacks in Melbourne on Anzac Day; second, that a 17-year-old would initiate a “Mother’s Day terror attack”. The point repeatedly made here is that a terrorist event just might have happened “in the coming days”.
On Friday afternoon, the seventeen-year-old in question was charged with engaging in an act in preparation for, or planning, a terrorist act following a large-scale raid on the family home. The object of interest here was a two-storey dwelling at Greenvale in Melbourne’s north. This action, supposedly, prevented the materialisation of “an imminent threat to the community.”
Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Phelan gave us a sense of this hypothetical world, one where genuine consequences visit the individual who has, in fact, committed no verifiable criminal act. “We may not know exactly where it was going to occur nor when it was exactly going to occur.” (Exactitude is the enemy of actuality.) “But let me tell you, something was going to happen and as a result of Victoria Police and AFP interception yesterday, some Victorians are going to be alive because of it.”
Victoria Police acting Chief Commissioner Tim Cartwright added his share to the dish of hypotheticals. “We do believe the young man intended to explode a device at an event over the coming days.” The case for the prosecution was that the young man had “taken serious steps to prepare a device and… we made the judgment call late last week that in the interest of public safety we needed to act and we did.”
The case of exceptionality is intoned as the catch-all justification. In Cartwright’s assessment, there are two agents that figure in this pressing security emergency, one of flesh, the other distinctly absent of corporeal presence. “Overseas recruiters and, more broadly, social media are a real challenge for us, a challenge we haven’t seen in the past.”
To add plausibility to these claims, the Australian National Security Hotline, famous for its insistence on citizens reporting anything out of the ordinary, was cited as an important source. The unmistakable point about the Hotline is that it has proven a great incitement to regard everything as extraordinary. All that is banal is potentially suspect, infested with dangerous potential. Even materialistically crude occasions like Mother’s Day are not immune. Thank goodness for the excruciatingly vigilant public, especially one which sees fundamentalist enemies everywhere.
Having been created in 2002, The Adelaide Advertiser reported in 2011 that 31,495 calls out of a total of 156,694 on that celebrated phone line were teasing hoaxes. Victims of Crime Commissioner Michael O’Connell could only say, with queued exasperation, that “The line was set up for the purpose of preventing people from becoming the victims of terror and it is shameful that people are using it to perpetrate hoaxes.” Shame tends to be a relative concept, whether it comes from the phoning hoaxer, or a government official dazzled by possible terrorist activities. Such a field tends to be littered with security fantasists and pranksters.
The papers have conscientiously marched to the government tune. Andrew Rule, writing for the Herald Sun, decided to spread the seeds of terror with a nice sowing observation. The headlining of the piece was direct enough: “Mother’s Day bomb plot: A DIY guide to the dark side.” The spirit of youth can be such a terrible thing. “You don’t have to be old enough to vote to make something in your bedroom that will tear through human bodies just as murderously as shrapnel from an artillery shell machined in a modern munitions factor.”
Rule could only regret that the “gentle civilised custom” was to observe “17-year-olds” as “children”. For it was “our gentle Western law” that refused to accept that teenagers “are not children when it comes to acts of terrorism and criminality.”
Such commentary narrows to the eye of the needle. Afghanistan keeps popping up by way of comparison, as if distant Australia somehow bears resemblance to war ravaged Kabul. (Yes, Australia did its share of ruining yet another state in the ledger of crusading folly, but Rule’s wishful thinking is that ruination there implies imminent ruination here.)
The logic of the battlefield is the strained logic of Australian suburbia, where childish “beginners” are easily lured to making weapons such “that bloodthirsty peasants and zealots from Ireland to Afghanistan” can muster. An environment that has neutralised any notion of revolutionary ardour becomes energised by the likes of the “gentle” 17-year-old who has to be viewed as anything other than gentle. Such disposition acts as its own judgment. For all of this, is Rule trying to tell us something, inadvertently suggesting that foreign interventions, meddlesome engagements, and nose-poking do have consequences of blowback proportion?
The rest is left to reports to cast the accused to the wolves. The views of unnamed and unspecified friends are cited, claiming that the teen was “gullible” and susceptible to being “brainwashed”. He did not disagree with targeting kafirs. He expressed dissatisfaction on Facebook that Muslim youths supporting Sharia law were being subjected to excessive surveillance. “You will be monitored and possibly have your passport taken away.”
Finally, in this entire sordid business of speculation, a few verifiable facts. There is pervasive surveillance, along with enlarged powers on the books. And the witchdoctors in Canberra and Melbourne are desperate – one might even say very desperate – for their terrorist quarry.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org