Can terror teach us anything?
In the wake of horror people always want to talk about lessons learned. It’s a way of finding some sort of meaning, I suppose, although it often seems like a desperate longing for hope.
You could say after Bali we learned about how we cope with tragedy (with kindness, strength and integrity, mostly). We learned how to forge a new and deeper relationship with Indonesia. On a practical level, those incredible people on the ground helping learned about how to treat burns, how to catalogue the dead, how to go on doing their jobs despite the horror.
We learned about the amazing people who survived, and the heartbreak of those left behind.
But we also learned about how ruthless and random people can be, how repulsively inhuman humans can be when their minds are set on some distant, feverish dream. We learned about Jemaah Islamiah.
We learned that Australia is not immune to terror; never was, never will be.
None of what we learned has made us safe. That’s the whole point of terror. You smash one group to bits and the splinters will get you. Jemaah Islamiah may be almost wiped out, but radical Islam is not, not by a long shot.
We know that it’s here, in Australia. We have home-grown wannabe jihadists. We have people reading a magazine that explains exactly how to light a bushfire in Australia in order to create maximum casualties.
But the bulk of what danger there is – and I don’t mean to overstate the danger – is not within Australia.
Chances are it’s brewing in Indonesia, our neighbour, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Indonesia, that beautiful archipelago, that patchwork of religions, woven with different strands of Islam and some cross threads of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Confucianism. Indonesia, with injections of cash from Wahabi sources, from radical political Islamists from Saudi Arabia. And with grassroots political, radical Islam.
So there’s reason to fear. But are we too afraid?
In the past ten years spending on security has skyrocketed. It went from $69 million to $438 million. We all know about the security restrictions and the laws that have come into play since September 11 and the Bali Bombings.
Terror has killed just over 100 Australians in a decade, but it’s an unacceptable threat, politically. No one would want to preside over cuts in security funding then have to explain to the public how a depleted intelligence force let that one suicide bomber slip through.
Thousands dying from inadequate healthcare, long hospital waits or lack of access to preventive care still don’t pack the same political punch.
And yet despite our demands for protection, people are critical of the Government’s spending on education in Indonesia, an effective way to reduce the co-opting of kids into extremism. They’re spending $500 million to build 2000 schools, and more to upgrade the curriculum in existing schools.
In Indonesia most schools are Islamic, and some of them are little nests of radicalisation – take Abu Bakar Bashir’s school, for example. It wasn’t alone. Particularly in poor and rural areas, parents don’t have much of a choice about where to send their kids, so they end up in what can be abysmal pesantren, learning not much beside the Koran, and risking being brainwashed into radicalism.
The bonus side effect of spending money to bolster more moderate education is… well, education. In a country with low levels of literacy, where an education can mean the difference between a life eking out a living and thriving.
Yesterday I spoke to David Olney, an Associate Lecturer at the University of Adelaide’s School of History and Politics and an expert in counter-terrorism. He says our politicians have reared us on a diet of fear which stops as being as rational as we should be about terrorism and what we can do about it.
“The level of fear over terrorism is far higher than it should be,” he said.
“Terrorism feels like it’s outside our control; it’s portrayed as interesting and frightening simultaneously in the media. Politicians decide that fear and risk have to be managed and there’s zero tolerance on terrorism.”
Mr Olney said offering Indonesians a different educational choice for their children could help shift the balance so that radicals become “strange outcasts”. The difficulty, he adds, is doing that without being cultural imperialists.
Part of the answer is in understanding what we fear. “You can learn what they want, what they’re afraid of,” Mr Olney said. “The Taliban, JI, they’re afraid of people encroaching on how they want to be. You need to understand their demands and fears and then decide how to respond to them.”
“We have to accept that our politicians need to engage in dialogue to learn what the issues are for Australia – and it’s important that the Australian public understands a dialogue does not mean you have to like what you’re hearing.”
Maybe the lesson, then, is that we have to listen better and engage more and not just educate but be educated, in order to better understand and fight this enemy.
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