Attorney-General George Brandis and Prime Minister Tony Abbott. via
During the last week of September, some 800 Australian Federal Police officers raided houses across the western suburbs of Sydney and arrested more than a dozen men on terrorism and related charges. The most dramatic case was against a man who had been communicating with a former Sydney Muslim street preacher who had joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The preacher instructed the Sydney man to go to the city’s central business district, seize a random member of the public, behead him or her with a knife, and then drape the body in the black Islamic State flag. The killer should take an accomplice to video the whole incident and then post it onto an international jihadi website. The would-be killer, however, had been under surveillance by Australian intelligence forces for several months and, before he could act on his instructions, the police swooped.
At the same time, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australian warplanes and special forces would join American-led operations against the Islamic State, a spokesman for that organization, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, used the internet to urge Muslims to kill “in any manner or way” disbelieving Americans, Europeans, Australians, and Canadians. Within hours, an eighteen-year-old Islamic State supporter in Melbourne—an Australian-born youth of Afghan descent, whom undercover police had been trying to convert into an informer—arranged an apparently amicable meeting with his two police contacts. He then produced a knife and attacked them. He almost killed one before the other shot him dead. The Islamic State’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, later claimed responsibility for the attack.
In October, a Muslim convert in Quebec used his car to run down two Canadian soldiers, killing one of them. Police pursued and shot dead the culprit, described by authorities as an “ISIL-inspired terrorist.” Two days later, another Muslim convert shot dead a soldier guarding the National War Memorial in Ottawa. He then stormed the House of Commons, where the Sergeant at Arms killed him during an exchange of gunfire. The following day in Queens, New York, yet another Muslim convert assaulted four police with an axe in a terrorist attack. He critically wounded one before the others shot him dead.
By November, Remembrance Day wreath-laying services at both the Cenotaph in London and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra had their security tightened after intelligence surveillance detected plans to stage terrorist acts at ceremonies to be conducted by the Queen and the Governor-General. In London, three men with Islamic State connections were arrested for plotting to behead a random member of the public, in imitation of the two former Islamic converts who in May 2013 knocked down the off-duty soldier Lee Rigby on a London street and beheaded him in broad daylight. Lord Mayor Boris Johnson told the Daily Telegraph that security forces were now monitoring far more suspects in his domain than before, “probably in the low thousands of people.”
Although the number killed or otherwise affected by Islamic State followers in these Western cities so far is not large, the dramatic emergence of these small-group and lone-wolf acts of terrorism has attracted maximum attention in the news media. Combined with the Islamic State’s tactic of filming the beheading of Western hostages in Iraq and posting the videos on the internet, they have raised a number of critical issues about freedom of speech and the liberty of citizens, including: the right of Muslim radicals to advocate their cause within Western societies; the right of Westerners to publish comments critical of Islam; the right of Muslim terrorists to publish videos of their killings on the internet; and the right of the press to report Western security operations.
In the Anglosphere tradition of free speech, it has long been legitimate to criticize the current government’s foreign policy and military campaigns, even to give verbal support to the enemy of the day. In 1776, some of Britain’s leading intellectual lights, including David Hume and Edmund Burke, supported the American bid for independence. On the eve of Waterloo, Wellington complained bitterly about “croakers” like Shelley, Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Hazlitt, who denounced what they regarded as Britain’s immoral and unnecessary war against their hero Napoleon. English socialists and Bloomsbury intellectuals were public critics of both the Boer War and the Great War, even though this meant siding with Afrikaners and German militarists. In the best-known American anti-war campaign of the twentieth century, that against the Vietnam War, American political activists censured their government and welcomed their country’s defeat. Most liberal democratic societies can tolerate dissent at this level without losing their commitment to freedom of speech.
However, the recent response to the emergence of the Islamic State by governments in most English-speaking countries shows that they are already averse to being as tolerant as they once were. For instance, after its September raids on suspected terrorists, the Australian government upgraded border security and increased surveillance and monitoring of radical groups. It brought forward legislation to give police and security services greater powers to arrest, detain, and seize passports from people headed to overseas conflict zones. Its new Foreign Fighters Act allows security agencies to detain suspects returning home after travelling in a “declared area” where terrorists have been operating.
Some of the proposed Australian laws will target those who preach violent jihad. A new offense of advocating terrorism will create penalties of up to five years in jail for people who intentionally counsel, promote, encourage, or urge the doing of a terrorist act or offense. Until now, prominent Australian supporters of the Islamic State, including one who endorsed attacks on Western leaders on his Facebook account, have been arrested but released without charge, because of the lack of effective legislation.
In August, after Prime Minister Tony Abbott appealed to a cross-section of Australian Muslims to discuss the first of his counter-terrorism measures with him—mainly changes to passport and welfare regulations that would inhibit Australians from joining or funding Middle Eastern jihadi’s—a number declined the invitation, including the Islamic Council of the state of Victoria, representing 150,000 Muslims. Instead, several Islamic community and university associations organized a public petition deriding the Prime Minister’s overture and his patriotic appeal for them to join “Team Australia” in this conflict. The petitioners argued that, rather than being on their side, Australia was part of their problem. Its new laws pretended to be religiously neutral, they said, but in reality targeted only Muslims. Australia was betraying its own principles on free speech and racial tolerance:
The primary basis of these laws is a trumped up “threat” from “radicalized” Muslims returning from Iraq or Syria. There is no solid evidence to substantiate this threat. Rather, racist caricatures of Muslims as backwards, prone to violence and inherently problematic are being exploited. . . . We are not fooled by those who speak against violence and terrorism but are its proponents at the international level through military and foreign policies. It is instructive that similar issues about Australian troops travelling abroad to fight or Jews travelling to train or fight with the Israeli Defence Force are simply never raised.
In other words, the petitioners were attempting to draw a moral equivalence between acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam and international military actions against Islamic forces. However, there is a profound moral difference between warfare against opposing forces that is openly declared in advance, giving civilians time to flee or take cover, and random acts of violence targeted primarily at unsuspecting civilians. The petitioners’ case for moral equivalence is unconvincing. Warfare is not terrorism, and terrorism is not warfare.
The attorney-general who wrote the new Australian laws, George Brandis, said he did so reluctantly. It was against his government’s DNA to impose limitations on freedom of speech, he said. “But there’s all the difference in the world between expressing opinions and inciting violence.” This is a fair distinction. Just as with warfare and terrorism, there is a profound moral difference between debating warfare at the policy level and advocating the killing of people on one’s home ground. Australia’s new restrictions on terrorist activities do not break classical liberal principles, which have always accepted legal restrictions on speech that incites violence, generates fear and disorder, or endangers national security.
So far, the new measures in Australia seem to have popular support. Both of Australia’s major political parties voted for them, and even the ultra-left Greens have been quiet on the issue. The complaints by radical Muslims have been largely confined to their own community and a small number of academics who still regard them as marginalized victims of an irrational Islamophobia.
This is a major contrast to the debate in recent years in several English-speaking countries about state regulation of speech regarded as offensive by various identity groups. As Daniel Hannan observes in How We Invented Freedom, throughout the Cold War there was absolute freedom of speech in most English-speaking countries, but once the menace of Communism was gone, the same countries abandoned one of the core principles for which they had been fighting. Hannan writes:
Before 1989, people in English-speaking states liked to tell each other that, unlike the poor wretches behind the Iron Curtain, they couldn’t have their collar grabbed by a police officer for saying the wrong thing. Yet they are now regularly arrested for such offences as quoting Bible verses that might offend gay people, or being rude about jihadi extremists.
The result is that Britain, which had enjoyed an uncensored press since 1695, in 2013 formally brought in a system of state regulation. In Australia, the former Labor government attempted to do the same thing at the same time, but fortunately failed. Nonetheless, since 1995, when the Keating Labor government amended the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, we have followed other English-speaking countries in prohibiting acts and speech “likely to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate another person or a group of people.”
These amendments did not arise from any need to curb a sudden outbreak of racial abuse and social intolerance. Instead, they were the product of the growing influence of identity group politics, especially among Aborigines, recent immigrants, and homosexuals. As a result, a number of little-known Christian groups were prosecuted for declining to lease their premises to homosexual advocacy groups and for preaching against some Islamic doctrines. In 2011, Australia’s most-read conservative journalist, Andrew Bolt, was convicted under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act of causing offense to people who claimed to be Aborigines but didn’t look like Aborigines, and was forced to apologize.
Bolt’s case sparked a vigorous national campaign by conservatives and liberals to repeal Section 18C. In the national election campaign of 2013, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised to do this. However, once in government, several ethnic lobby groups, including the Chinese, Muslims, and Jews, came out in favor of retaining Section 18C, arguing in petitions and street marches that its removal would cause an outbreak of racial insults, Islamophobia, and Holocaust denial. Several state leaders from Abbott’s own party supported them on grounds of preserving multicultural harmony, and on the undeclared grounds of appealing to ethnic voters in several marginal seats in Sydney and Melbourne. Attorney-General Brandis subsequently announced that the government would break its election promise and not proceed with the repeal.
Since June this year, however, when Islamic State troops captured the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the restoration of an Islamic Caliphate, the issue has taken a different turn. Until then, many newspaper editors engaged in a form of self-censorship, especially after the violence that flared around the world in 2005 after the publication in the Danish press of cartoons about Muhammad. In almost all news media, deference to the sensitivities of Muslims became an overriding concern, even in response to reports of Muslim terrorism. To make critical points when discussing the religion in the press, as I found from experience, you had to adopt the verbal ploy of blaming any problems on Islamism rather than Islam itself.
Since the emergence of the Islamic State, and especially after it adopted the barbaric tactic of beheading American and English hostages on camera, a shift in media coverage is now noticeable. Critical commentary of the kind that in 2006 caused Mark Steyn to be charged with Islamophobia under Canada’s human rights laws has lately become far more commonplace. While politicians have continued to insist they are targeting terrorism not Islam—“This is not about religion,” the New South Wales state premier said after the September police raids in Sydney, “it is about criminals intending to act criminally in association with terrorist organisations”—the views of people who do blame this particular religion are now increasingly heard. Not only conservative journalists but also letter writers to the editors of major morning newspapers can now say, as one did on September 22:
It is neither accurate nor helpful for politicians to insist that the rise of the Islamic state and its attraction to recruits has nothing to do with Islam or religion. It has everything to do with religion, and Islam specifically.
But this has been more than matched by an unprecedented degree of candor the internet now grants to radical Islam. If you type the words “Islamic State” into Google, you get between sixty and eighty million results, depending on the day you search. On most days, the first page Google displays links to hundreds of photographs of people being, or just having been, beheaded, shot, or crucified by black-clad Islamists. Search YouTube and you get 892,000 results, including the same images but in live action. Most of this footage is strictly taboo on the mainstream media, especially showing someone actually being killed on screen. Yet on the internet today, it is par for the course. This is hardly a victory for free speech. Liberal societies once demanded a sense of responsibility as a prerequisite for freedom of speech. Editors voluntarily withheld from publication photographs that might shock and terrify large numbers of people. On the internet, that rule no longer applies. We now accept a technology where anything goes.
It is not hard to see how dangerous this is. A live action film of a barbaric act like the beheading of a Western hostage has several target audiences. It is designed to demonstrate to electors in Western societies that their armed forces face a foe who does not play by the same rules, who relishes killing, and who cannot be defeated. In this, its aim is similar to the radio broadcasts of Lord Haw-Haw from Nazi Germany, which attempted to undermine the morale of British troops and civilians by exaggerating Allied losses in Europe. While any normal person would find these Islamic State images sickening, there is also a target audience who would welcome them. They are very likely to stir the homicidal desires of the movement’s foreign enthusiasts and to act as recruitment propaganda among that constituency. This is especially true of the more graphic YouTube videos, which seem designed to arouse the movement’s devotees even more. In short, these images are incitements to murder and terrorism. They are only one step removed from actual plots to commit murder and terrorism. These are strong grounds for making publication of these images on the internet illegal.
Of course, this would put only a very slight dent in the appeal of the Islamic State to Muslim youth in the West, but it would still be worth doing as part of a general cultural program aimed at reducing the appeal of radical Islam. What is likely to have a far more effective outcome, however, is the uncovering and prevention of acts of terrorism by security and intelligence services. Since September 11, 2001, surveillance by these services has penetrated terrorist groups in several Western countries and prevented them from enacting some major atrocities. In Australia, for instance, terrorist plots thwarted by intelligence surveillance included a conspiracy to explode a bomb in the midst of 100,000 spectators at a Melbourne football grand final and a plan by five men linked to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab to attack soldiers on a military base in Sydney with automatic weapons. In both cases, judges gave the culprits lengthy prison sentences.
Political debate in the news media has understandably focused less on intelligence successes than on failures, because the latter are where lives have been lost. In Britain, the reputation of the secret services suffered badly after the revelation of their series of mistakes in surveillance of the Muslim murderers of the soldier Lee Rigby. But there is also a longer and more entrenched suspicion of security services in most Western countries that inhibits their operations. In Australia, there is a widely accepted left-wing culture of contempt about both the ability of and the need for intelligence services in this country. Even though a Labor Party government founded the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in 1948, the agency has long been the subject of skepticism and mockery from leftist intellectuals. This was a political tactic inherited from the Communist Party, the main object of intelligence agencies during the Cold War, which effectively ridiculed Australia’s intelligence agencies for their allegedly obsessive surveillance—“looking for reds under the bed.” Between 2010 and 2013, the Labor government of Julia Gillard, herself a Communist fellow traveller in her student days, reduced funding of Australian intelligence services by 37 percent.
These cuts were only restored in May 2014 thanks to new grants from the conservative government of Tony Abbott. The funding package also included legislation for increased surveillance of radical groups and restrictions on the advocacy of domestic and foreign terrorism. But the issue that has aroused the most objections on grounds of free speech came not from Muslim groups but from the mainstream news media. There is now widespread agreement among Australian journalists that the new National Security Amendment Act, especially its clauses that threaten journalists with ten years jail if they publish information about “special intelligence operations,” is a disaster for freedom of speech in Australia. The journalists’ union summed up their complaints:
The Bill criminalises legitimate journalist reporting of matters in the public interest. It overturns the public’s right to know. It persecutes and prosecutes whistleblowers and journalists who are dealing with whistleblowers.
Some prominent conservatives also joined the fray. The foreign editor of the leading national daily, News Corp’s The Australian, described the bill as “a terrible piece of legislation that fundamentally alters the balance of power between the media and the government.” Spectator Australia called it “a slap in the face” for all those who voted for the Abbott government. The heir to Rupert Murdoch’s international media empire, his eldest son Lachlan, capped the campaign when he argued in a public lecture that, had these laws been in force in 1915, his famous journalist grandfather, Keith Murdoch, might have been jailed for ten years for exposing the incompetence of British generals in the landings at Gallipoli. “We do not need further laws,” Murdoch declared, “to jail journalists who responsibly learn and accurately tell.”
In a bid to hose down the commotion, Attorney-General Brandis entered the debate with a newspaper opinion piece. He said counterespionage and counterterrorism, by their very nature, required covert operations. And covert operations in the national interest, such as the penetration of terrorist cells, were inherently secret. “To make it unlawful to disclose that which must remain secret does not seem unreasonable,” he observed. “To suggest otherwise fails the common sense test.” Brandis pointed out the legislation was targeted not at journalists but at public servants. The clauses that worried journalists were designed as a response to the actions of dissident public sector employees like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, who illegally downloaded and disseminated intelligence information to newspapers such as the Guardian and the Washington Post and the website Wikileaks. The Australian government wants to make it illegal for newspapers to publish secret information about its special intelligence operations. The maximum penalty is ten years jail.
Even though other English-speaking jurisdictions protect the publication of illegally gained information, provided the publishers did not themselves violate any laws in acquiring it, in the kinds of cases now under debate, I believe the government is right. These laws are designed to preserve the secrecy of intelligence operations against internal enemies of this country who are committed to murdering our citizens. Some of these operations involve informers who, at risk to their own lives, have penetrated terrorist cells and reported their plans. In other cases, like that involving Edward Snowden, the published data exposed techniques for monitoring and tracking terrorists intent on killing American and other Western civilians. Journalists who campaign for this legislation to be withdrawn are being irresponsible. They think that if a public servant leaks to them information about special intelligence operations they should be able to go public without heed of the consequences. In the name of a “good story,” they want rights without responsibility.
Some claim leaked information of this kind must be in the public interest because the government does not want it publicly known. This is a specious argument. In many cases, the intelligence information leaked to journalists is not some objective truth that is inherently in the public interest, but information jaundiced by politics. It is often designed to cause harm of some kind, usually to some adversary the leaker wants to injure or to a policy the leaker wants to damage for ideological reasons. In Australia, the careers of prominent bureaucratic leakers against John Howard’s refugee policies in 2001 and his support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 demonstrated this clearly.
Moreover, in the long war against Islamic terrorism, the mainstream media has employed many partisan journalists who would like nothing better than to damage Western interests, especially where Israel is involved. They reject the limitations involved in the concept of loyal dissent, and openly campaign for the other side.
As I argued at the outset, campaigning for the other side is part of the long British tradition of freedom of speech. But it has limits. Freedom of speech does not include the right of the press to publish secret information about operations that put the lives of our security forces at risk, or that try to prevent terrorist schemes to murder our citizens.
Journalists should be reminded that freedom of speech is not an absolute right, even in the most liberal polity. The libertarian position favored by many journalists is that all governments are oppressive, and the press is duty bound to oppose any restrictive laws they impose. At a time when we harbor an enemy within, this notion is juvenile. Government and law are the necessary conditions of freedom. The security they provide is the prerequisite for a civil society in which freedom of speech becomes possible. When security and intelligence operations target terrorists committed to an Islamic ideology that reviles free speech as a Western heresy, they are upholding the true interests of freedom.