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2006 Australia-Israel Hawke Lecture

The Ethics of Terrorism:  Can there be peace and reconciliation?

Thursday 10 August 2006

Delivered by Marcus R Einfeld

Former Justice of the Federal Court of Australia and of the New South Wales, Western Australian and Australian Capital Territory Supreme Courts
Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court
Officer in the Order of Australia
AUSTCARE’s Ambassador for Refugees
UNICEF’s Ambassador for Children
Foundation President, Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and Australian Paralympic Federation

1. Introduction

I thank the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre for their invitation to deliver the 2006 Hawke lecture. Bob was a great fighter for justice, for Israel and the Jewish people and I regard it as a great honour to be here to continue this tribute to his legacy and commitment.

We meet tonight as active participants in a new world. Not a brave new world, I fear, but rather a bloody new world, in which old polarities of race, culture and politics are dividing humanity ever wider. This world is fraught with deep misunderstandings and equally with deep ignorance – both leading to serious dangers and risks. We live now in a time that those who established the post war world hoped would never occur again, a time of constant and divisive warring with the threat of escalation to the point of no return. How easily we have forgotten the darkness and horrors that confronted and very nearly tore this world apart only sixty years ago.

2. Genesis of human rights

In the wake of the massive destruction of life and property that was World War II, an old world, tired and bleeding from its ravages planted the seeds of a new international order in the form of a document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By then, the world had witnessed some of the worst atrocities imaginable. The sheer numbers of people who died during the World War II numbs the mind: 25 million Russians in the freezing winters of 1942 and 1943; 15 million civilians throughout the rest of Europe, innocent victims of fascism, and 6 million Jews and the hundreds of thousands of Roma (gypsies), communists, social democrats, Catholics, non-Aryans, homosexuals and humanitarian sympathisers – including 1½ million children – who were subjected to the rifles, the preposterous death camps and the Zyklon B Gas of the SS and the Einsatzgruppen.

And perhaps the most staggering statistic of all - the 17 million allied soldiers who gave their lives in defence of freedom and the liberal tenets by which our countries have lived for hundreds of years, and their counterparts on the other side who died in a cause which to most of us remains a perplexing mystery to this day.

The Universal Declaration was born in the cradle of this value system. It was a bold and brilliant document full of words, phrases and concepts that everyone in the free world wanted to hear. It spoke of recognising the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. It observed that disregard and contempt for human rights had resulted in barbarous acts which had outraged the conscience of mankind. It called for the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want, as the highest aspiration of the common people. It declared as essential that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.

The darkness and horrors of the second World War compelled the international community to unite in a vow to create a world in which human rights would be honoured, and in which even the slightest breaches would be rectified lest they lead inexorably to new regimes of brutality and authoritarian oppression. And on 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the newly created United Nations, under the chairmanship of an Australian (by coincidence one of Bob Hawke’s illustrious predecessors as leader of the Australian Labor Party), proclaimed this extraordinary declaration of humanitarian principles.

Sixty years is but a drawn breath in the context of the thousands of years of human existence, yet so many of us in the “educated”, “democratic”, “western”, “liberalist” societies as we call them, plead simple ignorance to the dangers of cultural polarisation. First and foremost in our minds must be the quest for knowledge about the realities of living on a multicultural planet. Having regard to the shocking events in London today, we are surely faced too starkly with the consequences of ignorance to continue on our present path.

Language, knowledge, communication and perspective are what I am vigorously advocating today. The blind fervour that grips so many of us and rouses us to hate through loose rhetoric and mob mentality is symptomatic of the almost overwhelming human urge towards polarisation. The odds are that if we can band together against a common foe, falsely perceived or not, we will win whatever the battle is.

The question then is – do we know what we are banding against? The recent terrible outbreak of war in the Middle East has confused many Australians. Who is right? Was Israel justified in its swift and seemingly merciless attack on Lebanon? If so, to what extent? How far can we go in order to safeguard ourselves against others?

To even begin to address these questions, we must first examine what “terrorism” means.

3. Genesis of terrorism

The word “terrorism” itself is a misnomer of sorts. It was first coined during France's Reign of Terror in 1793-94, during which leaders of a systematised attempt to weed out "traitors" among the revolutionary ranks, claimed terror as the sword of liberation, best suited to cutting swathes through the repressive elite. However, as the French Revolution soured, the word soon took on grim echoes of state violence and guillotines as those very same leaders failed to contain their bloodier instincts and mistook strength for oppression.

This dark hue is carried through to our concept of “terrorism”. It has strayed far from its etymological sources, and has now weaved into its fabric connotations of brutal unthinking violence – a cancerous global necrosis which makes us all shudder and devoutly hope for a ritual and exhaustive expunging of the idea once and for all. We freeze and wince as we watch scenes of ravaged lands and people. We have seen it all – the assassination of leaders, the hijacking of planes, the bloodthirsty murders of Olympic athletes, of mothers and babies on a Belfast shopping street, of revellers at a Bali nightclub, of kids in Israeli kindergartens, buses and cafeterias, and in Palestinian Refugee camps – and of course the apocalyptic visions of smoke and rubble in New York City four and a half years ago. We are rightfully mortified by the carnage and conditions generated by terrorism. The arbitrary violence of its cycles instils paranoia, hatred and, above all – fear.

The next question lies in precisely who wishes terrorism expunged. Perplexing as this may be to those amongst us who lounge in some type of cultural myopia, it is quite often the case that those they determine to be terrorists feel precisely the same way about them. The French revolutionaries fought for their liberty, and conceived of terrorism as their tool. Today, it is hard to find anyone, including those we in the West term “terrorists”, who wants to be known as such.

Instead, individuals and organisations branded as terrorists tend towards titles like "freedom fighters," "urban guerrillas," "faithful martyrs" or “holy warriors", among other things. Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (aka Carlos the Jackal), the mastermind of numerous terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 80s, described himself as a revolutionary and "above all a family man" 1. The adage that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is at the absolute heart of this matter. In the face of our fraught, reeling world, we can no longer fail to acknowledge one inalienable fact – terrorism is borne of a clash of ideologies, not merely the mad, fundamentalist digressions of one.

Let me be clear – like everyone who is sane, I utterly condemn the mindset behind bombings, shootings, hijackings or assassinations. Terrorism is nothing other than a deliberate campaign of violence against unarmed civilians and therefore to be vilified and uncompromisingly rejected to the utmost extent. These hideous acts should never be the platform with which international empathy should encourage negotiation.

The fact remains, however, that the dogma behind the brutality is almost invariably an act of ultimate desperation or frustration at the inability to bring a desired world view – that is to say: ideology – into existence.

Some argue that delineating precisely who is the brutalist in any given situation is not an easy one. They cite the conflict in the Middle East as the perfect and almost impossibly complex example of this.

4. Middle East terrorism

The Lebanese government, which knows very well what a scourge to its people Hezbollah has been for at least two decades, claims that Israel is committing state terrorism by using force to defend itself and its people. Other Arab states which have offered nothing other than words and some money – and in the case of Syria, the passage of arms and armaments from Iran, pretends support for Lebanon today when they could for the last years and more have implemented Security Council resolution 1559 and assisted the Lebanese army to disarm and remove Hezbollah. Just like they offer words but little else of support for the Palestinians when they could have settled and rehabilitated every single person in the refugee camps six decades ago.

Why has virtually the entire Western world labelled Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organisations? The answer is because they label themselves as such and have never hidden their desire and determination to destroy Israel as a state and push its Jewish population into the Mediterranean.

But it is even more. The leaders of Iran, including its preposterous President Ahmadinejad, state quite openly and often that they are not only determined to destroy Israel, kill Jews, but also establish a pan-Islamic Shi’ite state without national borders across the Middle East – no doubt under their hegemony – which would then contain not only no Israel but no Egypt, no Jordan, no Saudi Arabia, and probably no Syria which is Sunni-led and run. You can imagine what a launching pad that will be for further conquests. No wonder the Arab states do not support Iran although they sometimes speak as if they do. No wonder the West is suspicious and antagonistic

When people say that Israel is using “disproportionate” force in killing civilians in Lebanon, I wonder where I have failed. I have spent a good part of my life fighting to save and improve lives. The most important human right is the right to life itself. Like you and every decent human being, I flinch and recoil at the death of unarmed civilians, especially children, in war, every war, not just this one; every child, not just Lebanese children precious as they are. I have for years been a UNICEF Ambassador for Children trying to help the world’s children to survive as refugees or victims of one ethos or another. Why have I done so badly? Why have I failed so miserably?

In terms of proportionality but not otherwise, I bring myself back to some semblance of balance by recalling the 123 Israeli children murdered by the Palestinians in the second intifada between 2000 and 2003; by recalling so many school buses blown up by Palestinian suicide bombers in the very heart of Israeli cities and towns; by remembering the carnage I personally witnessed at Maalot and Kiryat Shmona, small towns in northern Israel, when kindergartens of little babies where blown up by Arab terrorists.

By recalling the statement of the legendary Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, when she said:

We can forgive the Arabs for murdering our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to murder their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.

By remembering current Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s statement just two weeks ago when he said:
When we kill their children we regard it as a total failure. When they kill our children, they regard it as a complete success.

You can criticise Israeli leaders and military on many counts. My experiences with and exposures to Israelis, and my reading of Israeli publications now and for many years demonstrate that highly intelligent Israeli citizens themselves do it everyday. I have done so myself on occasions. But us armchair generals have an easy job as compared to Israeli Cabinet Ministers today who have been saying in these last few weeks that this war will not solve a single problem let alone wipe out Hezbollah. You can agree with the King of Jordan that even if Hezbollah were wiped out completely another group would be formed and start up again. Which is the problem with the so-called War on Terror. The dilemma is that Israel still has to save its own people from the rockets raining down on them at the hands of people dedicated to their total destruction. How do they do it without killing others?

In contemplating your answer to that simple question, of one thing you can be certain – not even one Lebanese or Palestinian child or civilian adult has been or would ever be deliberately killed by Israeli fire. Israel is fighting for her very survival. It is fighting to save its people from annihilation, let alone the mass of missiles and rockets fired on it in recent weeks. Hezbollah and Palestinian suicide squads and their Iranian backers make no secret of their mission to deliberately kill Israeli children and adults alike.

So much in my view for the concept of disproportionality, tragic and horrible as it means. As Charles Krauthammer asked in the Washington Post last week:

What other country, when attacked in an unprovoked aggression across a recognised International frontier, is then put on a countdown clock by the world and given a limited time window in which to fight back, regardless of whether it has restored its own security? What other country sustains 1,500 indiscriminate rocket attacks into its cities – every one designed to kill, maim and terrorise civilians – and is then vilified by the world when it tries to destroy the enemy’s infrastructure and stronghold with precision-guided munitions that sometimes have the unintended but unavoidable consequence of collateral civilian death and suffering.

Who can disagree with Krauthammer when he wrote:

When one is wantonly attacked by an aggressor one has every right – legal and moral – to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one’s security again.

How much more justified is it if the aggressors use their people as human shields, fill their houses, mosques, schools and public buildings with missiles, rockets and other arms, and hide their fighters and weapons on ambulances.

Yet that is the face of Middle East terrorism. And as Krauthammer pointed out, the United States did not respond to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour by hitting a Japanese naval base or two or ten. It virtually decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even Tokyo. Britain did not respond to the German blitzkrieg by merely going for the Luftwaffe’s air bases. It simply pulverised countless German cities and towns where people lived who had nothing to do with the war at all.

Those who do not find it too problematic to stand firm to their democratic ideals and pass indignant judgments of condemnation on Israel’s actions might ask themselves whether our background of democratic comforts has trained us adequately in the ways of humankind. How often do we reflect objectively upon the plight of those who have endured and are enduring suffering beyond the ken of our darkest imaginings in bunkers and under daily bombardment? And on the other side, what consideration do we give to those ethical constructs that are based on diametrically different historical experiences and philosophical traditions to our own? It really is about time that we actually sat down and thought about all this without the spectre of social and cultural bias clouding our judgment. We must surely at least start the process of bridging these gaps?

It is no answer to say that this is all too “political”. Humans are by their natures political animals. We have organised ourselves into societies based wholly on political premises – we give up certain individual options in order to be protected and serviced by the state. In almost every single news item including sport and other entertainment, we are participating in an essentially political act of our own formulation. This is how the democratic model operates – by voting and more importantly, by accepting the results of our voting we position ourselves as willing participants in a quintessentially political process – with each and every one of us at least theoretically having an equal voice. In such a context saying one is not political is in my opinion irrelevant.

5. History of terrorism

We may resile and grimace at what is happening around us – and there seem to have been more acts of terror since the so-called War on Terror was declared than there were in many years before – but we cannot simply dismiss as modern or mad a phenomenon which has been prevalent since at least the first century. Certain Zealots of the first century Roman Empire would publicly slit the throats of Romans and their collaborators. The Thuggee cult of seventh century India would ritually strangle passers-by as sacrifices to the Hindu deity Kali 2. The eleventh century Middle Eastern Shiite sect known as the "Assassins" would eat hashish before murdering civilian foes. And all this centuries before Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 by a Serb extremist, sparking World War I 3.

In more modern times, we have witnessed the handiwork of such groups as the Red Brigade in Japan and Bader Meinhof in Germany, and many other similar collections, even the Ku Klux Klan in the southern United States, all of whom have killed people at random for not the slightest rational purpose at all.

The vestiges of present day Muslim extremists are to be found in the Muslim Brotherhood, a political force which began in Egypt in 1928. Their goal was the establishment or restoration of Sharia and Islamic values in the face of growing Western influence. Generations of violent and radical minority Muslim groups since have succumbed to this puritanical interpretation of Islam, including the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Egyptian-born Islamic Jihad. Today’s targets of these groups may be Americans, Israelis, Christians, Jews or simply non-Muslims around the world but their real goal is to Islamise, and thereby to purify, what they affect to believe are decadent Western practices and activities.

6. State terrorism

Most definitions of terrorism refer to the actions of sub-national groups, but not of government leaders or states. This blindness conveniently puts beyond the bounds of the epithet "terrorist" even such dedicated killers of civilians as Hitler's Third Reich, Stalinist communism, Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the murderers of Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, backed and encouraged by the CIA regardless of the views, wishes, and votes of the Chilean people.

This narrow view would also disqualify the wholesale murder of Bosnian men by Radovan Karazich and Ratko Mladic in the Bosnian Civil War, and the almost total removal of the intelligentsia and the traders by Idi Amin's Uganda. These styles of atrocity are mostly defined as human rights abuses or war crimes, perhaps to make them more amenable to international passivity, perhaps on some unconscious sovereign level to preserve the definitional authority of the concept of state. The fact is that they were all horrendous anti-civilian emanations of states. Violence perpetrated by governments is terrorism, no less than non-government groups or individuals, if it involves violence intentionally aimed at killing civilians and implanting fear and terror in the people in order to force them into supporting or not resisting the violence.

Equally reprehensible, perhaps even worse, is the prevalence of state-sponsored terrorism by the provision of sanctuary, weapons, training, or logistical, financial, or diplomatic support to terrorist groups. Nations such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Peru, Guatemala, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Sudan have all sponsored groups or individuals on democratic nations' most wanted lists.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein commissioned several failed attacks on US facilities in the region. Although the idea that he could have been associated with al Qaeda is, and always was, absurd, Iraq’s link to terrorism was alleged by the Bush administration to be his possession of, or determination to develop or acquire, weapons of mass destruction, as yet eluding discovery, which it asserted he might share with terrorists who could launch devastating attacks against the United States.

Some might think this thesis a less than persuasive basis on which to deploy almost half a million service personnel, with all the consequential risks that came with the package especially as the Messianic goal of establishing a western style democracy in Iraq requiring reconciliation of Shia and Sunni, amongst others was only ever a dream as the events of the last year have tragically demonstrated. But it was the underlying argument for a war which has actually resulted in the killing of thousands of the very civilians whom it was supposed to save.

Many of the perpetrators of state crimes are still free and even continue to prosper, protected by the governments which have followed. It is these regimes of the elite – both local and foreign, third world and imperialist – that have been responsible for introducing, legitimising, institutionalising and organising violence and terror on a gross scale.

What very few people know or understand, even though the evidence is plain and plentiful, is that many of these countries have been backed and financed by the US and other western powers, including Australia. We have only to bear witness to Australia’s own very personal contribution to a terrorist regime via the Australian Wheat Board.

Apparently political transparency is a democratic ideal to which we only pay lip service these days. What makes this brazen perversion of principle all the worse is the incapacity of those in power to apologise or try and make amends. Does anyone truly believe that the persons sitting next to us here tonight or on the bus or train going to or coming home from work are fundamentalist killers simply because of their ethnic background? I certainly do not look at the Anglo-Saxons here and think they all belong to the KKK, or are even vaguely persuaded by that extremist ideology. Why, then, are so many in this country willing, even eager, to do just this?

The snarling and anger-torn visages of men and women on both sides of the divide were thrown into stark and horrible relief on our very own shores this past six months. The Cronulla riots were the result of a thick veil of misinformation and apathy, wrought by ourselves and by the process of cultural polarisation that has infected the world post September 11, finally proving to be too much for those far from the necessary knowledge pools.

How easy it is for the mob to take over. And how easy it is for us to forget that we are all humans, and thus fallible and capable of as much darkness as any other human, no matter the race. We as Australians face a period of immense challenges, and we must not shy away from the task of addressing them despite the difficulty of doing so successfully, and the impossibility of doing so quickly.

How, then, do we understand the reasons for believing the incredulously stupid things we seem to believe in at the moment? How is it that other cultures believe the same stupid things? How can a bunch of thugs in Indonesia believe that killing people in Australia will fix one single thing? How did those criminals who forced their way into the Greater Seattle Jewish Community Centre last week and killed an elderly Jewish lady contribute to righting a single wrong, actual or perceived? How will threats and possible actions against Britain/US flights, or against me and others working to bridge the gaps solve a single problem?

7. Clash of cultures

The majority of terrorist attacks occur at the volition of factional extremist militants. Whilst the abstruse rhetoric of many magniloquent pack leaders is largely ignored as senseless and offensive, these individuals are self-appointed ambassadors with an impulse to deliver a message that they believe will convince or persuade millions of people around the world to join their crusades, financially and politically, if not bodily. In fact, if and when the message is delivered, as we all hope will not happen, the resistance and the consequent unavoidable damage to innocents will expand and grow “disproportionately”.


The confusion between following and leading the path of any religion has been the catalyst for innumerable terrorist attacks. As everyone knows, the majority of today’s extremist organisations stem from Islam. Generally, these groups regard their struggle to be part of the war between the righteous ummah (Muslim community) and the pagan Christian/Jewish West. Yet this extreme politicised form of Islam represents just one derivation within a diverse religion, which most others reject as a radical warped deformation of their faith.

Mainstream Islamic teachings prohibit the unprovoked killing of civilians, and its tradition, unlike some other beliefs, preaches religious tolerance as epitomised by some of Mohammed’s teachings, and by the Caliphate’s ninth and tenth century rule of Spain and the pluralism within the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, a number of Muslim countries joined the "coalition of the willing" when George Bush embarked on his "crusade" against terrorism. Some, like Egypt and Jordan, have suffered for being traitors in the eyes of extremists.

Much of terrorist Islam terrorises other elements of Islam itself, no less – perhaps more – than it does the non-Muslim "infidels". Many more Muslims have died in Iraq by the hands of Muslims than Western forces or any other group. Contrary to mainstream Palestinians, many in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for example, quite openly admit to opposing a democratic Palestinian State alongside Israel – the so-called "two state solution" – and to seeking, similarly to Iran and Hezbollah, a pan-national Islamic theocracy across the Arab world, run something like Iran, which would then include a ‘liberated’ (meaning ‘destroyed’) Israel. Hence these movements have continually sought to undermine any progress towards peace between these antagonists which might bring about that result with Western, especially US, support.

Although this situation undermines the notion that terrorism is anchored in a clash of civilisations, the focal point of global conflict is undeniably becoming cultural rather than economic. As far as al Qaeda and like-minded Islamic militants are concerned, their jihad ("Holy War/struggle"), originally aimed at removing the Saudi and Gulf State autocratic monarchies, is now pitted against the evils of Western interlopers who in their eyes are tyrannising Islamic values, not least by the crude politics and economics of oil. They believe that killing innocent civilians is justified in order to impose Sharia law and Islamic cultural purity and identity.

On the other hand, no less an authoritative figure than former Iranian President Sayyed Mohammad Khatami, himself an Ayatollah, said in New York in November 2001:

Vicious terrorists who concoct weapons out of religion are superficial literalists clinging to simplistic ideas. They are utterly incapable of understanding that, perhaps inadvertently, they are turning religion into the handmaiden of the most decadent ideologies. While terrorists purport to be serving the cause of religion and accuse all those who disagree with them of heresy and sacrilege, they are serving the very ideologies they condemn… 4

The role of God

But the matter is much wider than a type of Muslim schizophrenia. Both sides in many conflicts claim God, often the same God in origin and belief, as their justification for all types of indiscriminate killing or persecution which can only be regarded as terrorism. Many, possibly most, historic wars against civilisations have been waged in the name of God. God led the people of biblical times into any number of wars with innumerable civilian fatalities. The Inquisition first let loose in Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella was a terror campaign of momentous order, released in loyalty to God. The Christian Crusades and the Ottoman Turkish marches through Europe were claimed as activities of God.

Hitler's war on the Jews was undoubtedly a consequence of centuries of discriminatory persecution of Jews by the Catholic Church in Europe because of their rejection of Jesus and perceived infidelity to God's word as allegedly expressed by Him. It took the Church until the 1970s – and the courage of Pope John XXIII – to absolve the Jewish people of all generations from the appalling calumny of being Christ killers. The Muslim assassin of President Sadat of Egypt and the Jewish killer of Prime Minister Rabin of Israel claimed in one way or another to be on a mission of God. And there are countless other examples.

Undemocratic and repressive states

In addition to religious justifications, terrorists exploit the repressive regimes under which they live. An overwhelming lack of any form of real democracy or democratic institutions in many nations suppresses the free expression of views, disables the potential to resolve problems internally, and stops groups disunited by culture, history, religion or language from availing themselves of the internationally recognised principle of self-determination. Extremist groups often represent the only form of political opposition and often find a significant number of sympathisers offering credence to their cause and actions within their societal bloc.

Just weeks before the attacks in the US in September 2001, Osama bin Laden released a message accusing Western "infidels" of killing millions of children in Iraq and Palestine 5. Whilst the figure is propagandistic and the assertion conveniently forgets Saddam Hussein’s gross corruption and deliberate failure to take full advantage of the humanitarian modifications of UN sanctions, the perception that the sanctions were to blame for the crippling of Iraq’s economy and the desolation of its people poured more fuel on the fire of support and justification for revolutionary subversive movements.

Ineffectual states and institutions render citizens powerless to satisfy even their most basic needs, and offer no prospect of building a better life. In their place, religious and other institutions have in many nations, for centuries, provided a haven of substitution where the state has failed, by supplying food, shelter and other basic human needs in addition to a divine source of faith. In other words, they offer the asylum of physical survival while allowing followers to feel spiritually safe, and to derive comfort from inhaling the edicts of their faith. Out of these institutions many terrorist organisations have sprung.


The converse of weak states is those who refuse to relinquish control over areas within their territory that have historically been inhabited by different ethnic groups. Many of the world's thorniest problems and most dangerous terrorist hot spots include the struggles for independence by groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, the IRA in Northern Ireland, the Basque Fatherland and Liberty in Spain, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Abu Sayaf Group in the Philippines, and the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey.

In Africa in particular, much conflict has ensued from the fact that the borders of many former colonies were fixed in the imperialist centres of London, Paris, Lisbon, Madrid or Brussels without a moment’s thought for the tribal, even family, divisions they were perpetrating, and the pain and suffering they were thereby causing. The present agonies in Zimbabwe, in the lee of Robert Mugabe’s apparent megalomania to rule, are in part a consequence of these errors.

The discontent of living under the partial or entire rule of a government with no comprehension or regard for the diversity within its bounds, has represented, and will continue to provide, the foundation for continued insurgence in opposition to the status quo.

Capitalism and societal decay

Another important factor in terrorism is the uneven spread of wealth throughout the world, compounded by the societal decay regarded as synonymous with that wealth. It is believed by many Muslims that Western material greed and behaviour, regarded as dissolute and self indulgent, displace other purer values and together lay the foundations for decay. For example, the breakdown of the family is seen by elements in Islam as the unavoidable penetration of shallow, religiously bereft and depraved Western values. In the West, we rightly or wrongly no longer associate such facets of our lives with religion or other categories of identity.


However, poverty in all its forms is, without doubt, the greatest single threat to global peace, security, democracy and human rights. Poverty breeds instability, instability breeds desperation, desperation breeds fanaticism, and fanaticism breeds terrorists. Defeating poverty would thwart a major driving force behind international terrorism. The poorest countries are the breeding grounds for violence and despair. Whilst we know that the planners if not the perpetrators of September 11 were wealthy and educated men – indeed, bin Laden himself is a multi-millionaire from one of Saudi Arabia’s most affluent and influential families – the caucus of support for and acceptance of the actions they and others execute, if not the values they espouse, emanate from the despondent and dejected poor.

It is of course morally incumbent on rich nations to share their wealth with the poor, just as democratic countries are supposed to arrange their economies so that their rich citizens do so with others within. But the clearly established interrelationship between poverty and terrorism means that it is actually in the political and security interests of rich countries to increase their assistance to the poor nations.

Since donations have until now rested on the cusp of paltry or worse, perhaps the realisation that the preservation of developed statehood as we know it relies on the rapid enrichment of less-developed states, will provide the requisite impetus for this aid to materialise in meaningful terms so that the world's poorest people acquire the chance of living long and fulfilling lives.


And it is not only money that is needed. If developing countries and transitional societies are to prosper, the co-ordination of all aid under a system of solid comprehensive honest governance is essential to ensure that it provides a sustained benefit. For many years, both internal and external corruption of both donors and donees have made large-scale development assistance and associated programs anything but constructive, such that they are still often as inclined to failure now as they have been in the past. A concerted effort by developed nations to better fund, monitor and police the implementation of development programs, and a commitment by the assisted countries to themselves play by the rules they enunciate for others, will assuredly assist in the alleviation of poverty.


On the other hand, the vast majority of poor people do not resort to wilful targeting of vulnerable civilians. Political conditions and enduring feelings, either perceived or real, of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economics are what fuel many of the most extreme actions. It is thus disconcerting to contemplate the likelihood of reduced levels of assistance to developing countries when the risk of further confrontation declines, as occurred in the aftermath of the Cold War, the Gulf War, and the Bosnian and Kosovo wars.

In summary

If there were a single substantive root cause of all, or even most, terrorism, then by fixing that problem we could remove the stimuli of specific terrorist groups without encouraging others. In fact, the causes of terrorism are as varied as humanity, and they have all existed for centuries. And the great majority of peoples enduring hopeless poverty and underdevelopment, with at least equivalent causes as the terrorists, have not resorted to terrorism.

8. Why terrorism continues

Evolutionary warfare

On the one hand, terrorist bombings of civilian targets have never proved more than an irritant, however tragic and shocking, to a well-entrenched population which is protected by essentially effective security forces, although they do serve to incite retribution, increase the level of hostility to the "other" side, and weaken the influence of moderate forces on both sides of conflicts which might otherwise be open to peaceful settlements. Certainly, no one can or should rationally expect that the Israelis will be driven out of their country by these tactics. Even in Northern Ireland, where the British might at some time be persuaded to leave, and even influence and fund Irish Protestants to relocate in England or elsewhere, terrorism has been counterproductive.

On the other hand, terrorism persists because it works. Success encourages repetition and repeated success inspires terrorists more than desperation. While we are far from understanding the asymmetric theatres of warfare created by today’s terrorists, the nature of terrorism will continue to evolve as it always has. It was not long ago that we worried about assassinations, bombings, and hijacking. The impasse was whether or not to give in to the perpetrators' demands – often the release of colleagues from captivity.

Today we fear wide-scale acts of terror – such as the use of passenger planes as airborne missiles directed against densely populated targets, attacks on water and power supplies, communication facilities and other essentials to our daily lives, or suicide bombers in public places. The fact that it was not possible to prevent the murder of dozens of civilians by a suicide bomber in and outside a major American chain hotel in August 2003 in Jakarta, one of the most unstable and vulnerable cities in the world, or at the heavily guarded UN headquarters in Baghdad, suggests that the so-called War on Terror is not even on target, let alone in sight of success.

The failure to convict the notorious Indonesian cleric Abu Bakr Bashir of at least supporting the Bali bombing, let alone of heading up Jemaah Islamiah, was much more the result of the refusal of the Americans to produce as witnesses the notorious Hambali and other people in its custody at Guantanamo Bay than by any weakness of the Indonesian legal system. Clearly comprehensive international co-operation in this War still has a way to go, especially apparently on the part of its most powerful and vocal advocate.

Terrorist acts are rarely accompanied by specific demands. They are not contingent or conditional threats, and if they are, the conditions are deliberately set so high as to be unrealistic, such as the destruction of a way of life. Given the inaccessibility of such a goal, the terrorist’s objective is in substance the massive destruction and murder of as many civilians as possible.

In October 2001 there were reports of a plan to detonate in New York a ten kiloton nuclear weapon stolen from a Russian arsenal. In early 2002, greater Tel Aviv narrowly escaped total destruction by fireball when the planned detonation of a chemical factory was intercepted. Tomorrow we may be faced with terrorist mass weapons – nuclear, chemical and biological – supplied by Iran and capable of destroying entire cities and more. There can be no more intensive impetus for finding ways to rid our world of this scourge.


First is what we should not do. Not only must terrorism never be rewarded, the cause of those who employ it must be made, and must be seen to be made, worse off as a result of the acts perpetrated. As terrorists have their own criteria for evaluating success or failure, we must seek to make them worse off by their own criteria. This need, however, creates its own dilemma.

At least one element of terrorists’ success is massive publicity. All media reports about terrorist acts in totalitarian regimes such as China and the former Soviet Union are suppressed, whereas it is impossible for a democracy to control the amount of publicity a terrorist act generates. The difference between the past secrecy of the USSR and the exposure given to the horrendous murder of schoolchildren in Beslan could hardly be more stark. To that extent at least, democracies make the terrorists' job easier.

But publicity is not the main problem. A terrorist one day can be a hero the next. Many founders of new states after World War 2 committed what were described at the time as "terrorist" acts in their march towards the achievement of their cause. Many, including the indefatigably non-violent Gandhi and Mandela, were imprisoned for their actual or perceived activities, several without any genre of a genuine trial. Some, like Kenyatta, Mugabe, Begin and Mandela later became Prime Ministers or Presidents of their countries. At least three so-called "terrorist" leaders have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and many have received honorary degrees from leading universities and, like President Xanana Gusmao of East Timor, have been embraced by political and religious leaders. Apparently there are good and bad terrorists. The difficulty lies in defining what and who should be punished, and setting the criteria of accepted rules of law governing struggles for self determination. Some definitions are relatively easy. Others are much more problematic.

Lack of punishment

Even when we refrain from outright rewards for terrorists, we fail to adequately punish their crimes if and when they are caught. Among the worst cases in history of unpunished terrorists are the members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) who, between 1968 and 1972, carried out around 50 aircraft hijacks, detonations or other destruction of commercial airlines, and attacks on shopping malls and markets. Each act built on its predecessor to demand the freedom of its perpetrators. It is only necessary to recall that the release of the notorious Leila Khaled from British custody was secured by the relatively simple device of hijacking a British Airways (then BOAC) plane full of UK citizens, landing it in the Jordanian desert, and threatening to blow up plane and passengers.

The pattern became clear – that terrorists engaging in these actions would be caught but freed soon after to go home to a hero’s welcome. According to one survey, of the 204 terrorists arrested outside the Middle East between 1968 and 1972, only three remained in prison in 1975.

The PLO was not satisfied with killing innocent civilians. From experience they knew that their cause would attract more international attention and similarly scant jail terms if they embarked upon international terrorism. Despite the capture of three of the terrorists in the attack on the Munich Olympic village, involving the murder of the entire Israeli team in cold blood, nobody has ever stood trial for the crimes.

9. Australia and a more restrictive social contract

All these faces of terrorism feed into the communal fear. Paralysis is the consequence of these constant assurances of insidious global destruction. Paralysis even in the face of growing extremism in our own democratic governments and institutions. The question we must ask ourselves is this: How far do we allow ourselves to led away from fundamental liberal and democratic tenets in the name of fighting terrorism?

Mandatory detention

From the detainees in Guantanamo Bay to the children who until very recently were incarcerated in our own detention camps of asylum seekers, we have turned a blind eye to “security measures” that border on autocratic. I, for one, do not advocate letting anyone and everyone who wants to enter this country to do so nor would I condone a general change to the mix of people invited to join perhaps the most successful multicultural society in the world.

Furthermore, every asylum seeker's case must of course be assessed before acceptance as a refugee so as to be allowed to remain in Australia. But I do not accept that we need to lock them up for years in conditions worse than those provided for our own criminals. And I do not agree with their removal to offshore places whom we bribe to keep them away from Australian legal processes provided for everyone else, even suspected terrorists.

Security laws

The right to free speech is a valuable and undeniable element of a democratic society. Indeed there is probably no human right other than the right to life itself which is more widely acknowledged in international and constitutional practice than freedom of speech. However, for the protection of the rights of others, there must be and are limits to this right.

Contrary to widespread belief, there are a large number of legal restrictions on free speech in a society such as our own. The laws of defamation, censorship, sedition, obscenity, contempt of court and of parliament amongst others, all restrict free speech yet serve to protect the rights of people and create a stable and harmonious society. In addition, the right of free speech is doubtful, and ought in my opinion to be tempered, even not exercised, where it causes intense personal gratuitous hurt and insult to others who have done nothing to deserve the opprobrium. Rank untruths and sheer prejudice should not be tolerated as elements of free speech.

But I believe that some of our new security laws, although touted by their promoters as representing “a combination of best practice from overseas and innovative solutions that respond to Australia’s security needs”, go too far. Being susceptible to arrest and detention effectively for “thinking” bad thoughts is not in my view justified by the need for what have been called “increased powers to law enforcement and security agencies to enhance their capacity to prevent attacks.”

Some news outlets and our politicians would have us believe that the only way to protect ourselves is to let them protect us. I do not agree that more jails, longer sentences, less immigration and efforts to make us all act what is sometimes called “Australian” provide answers to the challenges facing us.

Expensive extended systems of social punishment have never been proved to reduce crime and indeed increasingly represent a “crime school”. Devaluing and subverting the very theoretical underpinnings of our legal system, including attacking Judges and lawyers indiscriminately, ensuring that the concepts of precedent and discretion are gradually weaned out, will leave us with only the tokenistic shell of a fair process of justice. Slowing the rate of multicultural growth will mean that we become less competitive and less powerful as a nation. And the idea that we must all adhere to a set of beliefs and behaviour that are only relevant to one particular section of Australian society – and then only vaguely so – will merely alienate and frustrate all the others.

Increasing levels of state control over our lives will mean an increasingly restricted state that touts the promotion of democracy to others but does not practise itself.


Look at what has happened, in this country, in the years since 2001:

a. Vivian Solon

In 2001, a seriously disabled Australian citizen by the name of Vivian Solon was unlawfully removed from the country. She had lived here, as an Australian citizen, for nigh on 15 years when she was deported to the Philippines, a country which charged her each day she was there as an illegal alien. Although grossly incompetent and negligent bureaucracy was part of the reason she was sent packing from her own country, it was also the fact that so many powers were vested in inadequately trained officials.

b. Cornelia Rau

The Palmer inquiry into the Cornelia Rau matter, which involved another illegally detained Australian citizen, this one with mental illness, found that Immigration officers were “authorised to exercise exceptional, even extraordinary powers…without training, management and oversight” 6

c. Other cases

And we are told that there are two or three hundred other cases.

10. Australia and human rights

Since the forging of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Australia has, for the most part, tried to implement the humanitarian standards that it identifies. As a middle power with a respected human rights record, we have been looked to and listened to by the international community on human rights issues. This proud tradition of support for human rights and dignity casts upon us a great responsibility. As the largest developed democracy in our region, indeed the sixth oldest democracy in the world, Australia not only has an obligation to speak out and act against persecution running rampant in other countries; we have an obligation to prevent and remedy human rights abuses on our own soil. In an international context in which Australia sees fit to intervene in the actions of other countries, Iraq and Afghanistan the obvious recent examples, we must ask whether in all areas of our lives we are fit to be judged by our own standards, let alone those that international consensus has agreed upon.

Some people label human rights principles, such as those espoused in documents such as the Universal Declaration, as foreign ideas imposed upon us by unattractive regimes or ideologies from elsewhere. But none of the tenets of the Universal Declaration and the raft of international laws which followed have in fact been forced on Australia by anyone. For one thing, when they were passed, the UN was firmly under western control. But much more significantly, none of their principles are foreign to us or to decent people anywhere. All of them are recognised and accepted as part of our and many others’ cultural and legal framework in any event.

The driving force for their enthusiastic adoption in Australian terms is the evolution of our nation into a society where laws, employment and human relations reflect decency and honour; where legitimate controversy is fought and resolved with a passion devoid of stereotypes, and of minority, group or racial defamation; where a fair sharing of our country’s resources and benefits is open to every sector of the community; and above all, where decisions of all kinds stem from considerations of merit and true deserts, free from preconceptions, prejudices and prejudgments.

11. Towards peace and reconciliation

Education and mutual exposure

Ultimately these principles will only be spread by education. You cannot legislate to make a person decent. And I do not believe that anyone can or will blast them into or out of existence. Now, more than ever, there is an urgent need for the perpetrators of terrorism and their intended victims to establish firm lines of communication based on an acquired knowledge of each other's norms of behaviour, aspirations and beliefs. And all of us must be taught, and must teach our children from their very earliest days in life, a tolerance and understanding of different ideas and peoples.

For whatever else we do, there is nothing more urgent and more fundamental to peace and our own consciences than to deliberately and consciously deflect the racial overtones flowing from the terrorism debate away from vengeance and violence on particular groups and peoples, to a search for the ways to solve or at least salve as many of the causes of such outrages as we can.

It is difficult to extend forgiveness or even understanding for the murder of innocent civilians, especially children, even if they were caught in a crossfire not of their making. It is also a tough ask to try to deal with fanatical martyr-driven hatred which intentionally seeks to kill children and civilians generally. Amongst other problems is the ignorance of different civilisations about others.

There is not even a common language of communication readily available. How many non-Muslims have ever read one line of the Koran? What do we know of Muslim poetry and literature, of its music and art, of its culture and philosophies? What efforts are we making to access the personal interests and aspirations of a billion people as a means of building understanding and tolerance? What do they really know and understand of us? We have many faults and our societies make many mistakes but we do cherish our freedom of thought and association, and the right of our democratic processes to determine the balance between the advantages and the harms of the pleasures and practices we pursue.

In my opinion, the only alternative to a search for peaceful solutions is a long period of cultural confrontation and worse which could get very nasty and violent indeed. We simply must find ways to get Muslims in our own communities everywhere to share with us the rich and beautiful elements of their beliefs and practices, rather than the ugly and insane manifestations of the few amongst them who do not wish to live in peace with the rest of us, with all our faults and inadequacies. And to let us share ours with them.

One of the tasks is to persuade peace-loving Muslims, which surely constitute the vast majority, to confront and persuade the violent minority to join the quest for peace and reconciliation.

None of this is or can be beyond us. Most democracies today are relatively peaceful multicultural societies in which live and let live philosophies survive, if not flourish. On the other side, I have been in something like 20 Muslim countries in the last several years and have met and talked to hundreds and hundreds of their peoples. I have met none who want anyone to be killed, still less to kill anyone themselves. All they want is what we want – the opportunity to live peaceful lives with their families, to work for fair reward, and to give their children opportunities for happier, safer and more prosperous lives than they themselves have had.

I have held in my own arms Muslim children and babies dying of simply cured diseases like measles and diarrhoea if only we could have got them the fresh water we throw away every day just cleaning our teeth. I have looked in the eyes of their parents as the lives of their children ebbed away, and cried with them because I could not help to save the kids. I have seen no different sense of love and loss than would be the case with any and every one of us. If we can do nothing else, can we just tone down the arrogance a fraction?

12. Conclusion

Terrorism does not have a single cause. Instead, factors including, but not restricted to, religion, despotic political regimes, historic prejudice, ignorance, lack of education, intolerance and poverty interact in complex ways and to different degrees to provide the impetus for terrorising people. Successful outcomes, publicity, and lack of punishment and rewards provide additional momentum.

Some commentators draw a distinction between two different types of terror. The first are those committed for feasibly attainable goals like national liberation, self determination and freedom from persecution and poverty. The second are those representing an unfocussed addiction to killing the innocent for its own sake and for highly unrealistic goals like the complete removal of a whole population or the global abolition of Western values and its Islamisation – as is the avowed policy of Iran and of Hamas and Hezbollah.

These observers suggest that a greater degree of ethical legitimacy can be granted to the violent activities of the first stream of terrorist groups. They may be right, and the world has often acted on this basis. The problem is that it does not stop there. I believe that terrorism cannot, at any level, be validated. However it may feel, no group should in fact be in such a hopeless state as to have to resort to terrorism.

At the end of the day, terrorists may win the odd battle for a headline or even recognition of their cause but history has proved that they will not win the war on which they are embarked unless and until their cause is seen to be just and they sit down to negotiate. All wars end. It is far preferable that, and the fighters should be helped to see why, this step be taken before wholesale loss of life, and gross expenditure on arms and armaments to which the sad lot of the people for whom they claim to act has much greater claims.

As Israeli leaders have stressed in recent days and many moderate Arab leaders are arguing, Hezbollah or at least its philosophy will not be wiped out by war. In order to put an end to violent terror, we must create disincentives to terrorist acts, incapacitate those who carry them out, and persuade those who might follow them that it is in their own interests not to proceed with their actions. In the tradition of people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, we must encourage peaceful negotiation between nations and groups within nations to resolve disputes and differences.

I am in favour of steps to remove tyrants and brutal leaders but do not support pre-emptive strikes without broad international support. One reason is that the illogical lines drawn between such examples as Iran, China and North Korea which we do not invade, and Iraq and Afghanistan which we do need a lot of international support to legitimise.

Basically fanatics, good or bad, will always be replaced by others, and it is mostly impossible to choose when to intervene and when not to do so. In my opinion, we should not initiate massive state violence to remove offenders unless there is a wide consensus that there is no other way, and firm binding international commitments and funds to carry out the necessary reparations. Instead, however difficult the task, we must devise ways to let terrorists and their supporters see the benefits of non-violence and then ensure that genuine non-violent movements receive justice for their causes and assistance towards their peaceful achievement.

Binding our own country in webs of anti-terrorist measures that leave our own citizens at risk of state-sanctioned punishment for little cause, is not a way forward either. We must, above all, learn about our neighbours, about terrorism and about its causes. The way forward is, and always has been, education. Money, resources and, most importantly, our very souls, must be dedicated to the understanding of why other cultures are the way they are, and how extremist groups can be nullified. It is only through education and a firm conviction in our own ideals of freedom and justice that we will ever be in a world finally wrenched free from the malevolence of terror.

It can never be wrong to be right – which on the determination to confront terrorism we certainly are. But the history of conflict has taught us that it can also never be right to be wrong. When attacked, creating the need for self defence, we certainly must fight but we cannot ultimately win this battle by violence and arms alone. We must win over the hearts and minds of people and, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela, change their attitudes including our own. And we must start this task just as soon as we can. In my view, there is not a moment to lose.


1 Bandura, Albert (1998) "Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement", in Walter Reich (ed.) Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies Theologies, and States of Mind. Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Centre Press, p.165

2 Rapaport, David (1984) Fear and Trembling: Terror in Three Religious Traditions, in American Political Science Review 78(3) pp658-677

3 Rapaport, David (1998) "Sacred Terror: A Contemporary Example for Islam", in Walter Reich (ed.) Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies and States of Mind. Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Centre Press, p123

4 The Economist, 24 November 2001

5 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Osama bin Laden. Online http://www.adl.org/terrorism_america/bin_l.asp

6 pg ix The Palmer Report: Inquiry into the Circumstances of the Immigration Detention of Cornelia Rau: July 2005

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