Terror comes to Sydney
Two months after the traumatic siege in Sydney, which claimed the lives of two innocent hostages, Australia is still searching for answers.
On Monday 15 December 2014, Iranian refugee Man Harom Monis simply walked through Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) and into Martin Place’s Lindt Café as a customer. Moments later he held 17 customers hostage and ordered the café manager to inform the police that Australia was under attack by the Islamic State. After 16 hours the siege ended, but not before the café manager had been executed on his knees and another customer, a commercial law barrister, was struck by a police bullet during the police shoot-out. While investigations revealed that Monis’s actions were independent and of his own accord, one thing became very clear: Australia was no longer immune from open terrorist attacks by radicalized individuals.
Australian Security Services let Monis slip through the net
In the aftermath, the country’s authorities were left to undertake an inquiry, rather uncomfortably, into how Monis was able to navigate the Australian legal and political system to gain Australian citizenship. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Australians are exasperated by the fact that, despite Monis’s history of criminal violence and mental instability, he was granted Australian citizenship and was able to possess firearms without a license. Moreover, Monis was granted bail during the time of the attack, even while he was accused of being an accessory to a murder. Embarrassingly, Monis had previously been on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s watch list in 2008 when sending offensive letters to families of dead Australian soldiers but was dropped off the watch list prematurely. The Commonwealth and State Governments have conducted an inquiry into the Martin Place siege and Monis’s entry into and life in Australia. This inquiry, along with the Government’s response will be released in the coming week.
Prime Minister Abbott fights back: tackles citizenship
Using the example of Monis, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott released a statement on his official YouTube channel last Sunday on the 15th February 2015, warning that there would no longer be the “benefit of doubt” for potential terrorists. In addition, he foreshadowed a crackdown on qualifications for residency, citizenship and social security in attempts to tighten national security. The case of Monis, as well as last week’s arrest of two men who had allegedly plotted a terrorist attack – one of which had been granted a protection visa before being granted citizenship – has prompted the Abbott Government to strongly revisit the citizenship issue. One point under consideration by the Government is the option of stripping citizenship of Australians, who on the grounds of reasonable suspicion may be involved in terrorist attacks.
Is he going to far?
The proposed changes however have been met with much skepticism and criticism. Australia, like many other western countries, has built its society on democratic values such as personal freedom, diversity and equality. At the core of the western legal system is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Yet the rise of radical individuals such as Monis has left an unnerved nation to a point where it appears that Australia has had to challenge some of their own fundamental values and ideals.
Unfortunately, this radical no “benefit of the doubt” approach taken by Tony Abbott may be counterproductive in the long run. The proposed changes are likely to weaken the certainty and status of Australian citizenship. This would risk marginalizing certain social groups and run contrary to Australian values of openness and inclusiveness.
Is mere suspicion enough to act? Is it to be extended to citizens purely by association of a potential terrorist? Is it appropriate to conflate social security with national security? What would be the impact of applying the no “benefit of the doubt” beyond the case of Monis to the highly charged issue around asylum seekers and border protection, not forgetting Australia’s obligations to refugees under international law. These are only a few of the considerations that must be taken into account before finalizing any new policy.
The growing terror threat should be met with moderation
While pundits are still discussing the potential impact of Tony Abbott’s new policy prescription, these recent events have clearly demonstrated that Australia can be an easy target of radical terror attacks. Authorities have stated that 140 Australians were openly supporting the Islamist death cult in the Middle East, and about 90 Australians having gone to the Middle East to fight, including in Iraq and Syria. The actions of these individuals require an immediate and appropriate response by the Australian Government. Monis’s actions have proved how a single individual can bring a country like Australia to a grinding halt and attack its psyche. However, in its rush to draft and pass new legislation, Government should be careful not to curtail core Australian public policy principles of life and liberty. Of interest now is the Government’s upcoming inquiry report and response that needs to explain very clearly the need for further and more stringent legislation that is justifiable and sustainable both legally and morally.