Going to extremes

There were two terrible pieces of news this week, both related, both central to how Australia deals with itself and with the world.

The first was news that a terror cell in New South Wales and Queensland was reportedly plotting the random kidnapping and beheading of an Australian, who would be draped in a flag of the Islamic State before being killed on camera.

The alleged cell resulted in the largest terrorism raid in Australian history, involving more than 800 police officers and leading to the detention of 15 people. One man was charged with preparing to commit a terrorist act. The prosecution said he was planning an execution to “shock, horrify and potentially terrify”. Bail was refused on Thursday because of his “unusual level of fanaticism”.

In confirming the nature of the plot, the prime minister said there had been “quite direct exhortations … to conduct demonstration killings here in this country”.

The other terrible moment this week, related as it is, involves torture and the attorney-general. Specifically, it involves section 35K of the draft National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014, which is proposed to read:

“A participant in a special intelligence operation is not subject to any civil or criminal liability for or in relation to conduct if … the conduct does not involve the participant engaging in any conduct that: (i) causes the death of, or serious injury to, any person; or (ii) involves the commission of a sexual offence against any person; or (iii) causes significant loss of, or serious damage to, property.”

George Brandis has a knack for overreach. He destroyed the case for altering the Racial Discrimination Act by gutting it with amendments. Here, he has been accused of providing cover for security agencies to participate in torture.

This is the nature of panics. The terribleness of situations, such as the alleged terror plot foiled on Thursday, produces legislation that would not ordinarily be acceptable. The statute books are studded with it.

The Saturday Paper’s Sydney correspondent, Mike Seccombe, calls this accumulation the “junk DNA” of legislation. “Actually, worse than junk DNA,” he writes. “Like dangerous mutations of our legal DNA.”

Called to mind are the Howard government’s enhanced sedition laws, preventive detention orders and control orders. There is the unedifying spectre of the Haneef case, and the proposed reversal of the presumption of innocence. If section 35K is passed and used to allow for torture, there is a strain of barbarism in the legislation as worrying as that intercepted in Sydney’s cold dawn.

The great problem with powers given to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and other agencies is that their use is necessarily covert. We know very little about the operations of our spies. Some of this must be accepted as acknowledgement of the sensitivity of their work. But this makes it doubly important that the powers given to them are scrutinised before they are used.

The Beelzebub of terrorism must not coarsen our laws or our human decencies. It must not excuse the inexcusable.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 20, 2014 as "Going to extremes".

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