We're on the brink of repeating the mistakes of 9/11

In 2010 former US president George W Bush attempted to explain in his memoirs how it was that he sat in stunned silence for a full seven minutes in front a classroom of kids after being informed by his staff of the 9/11 attacks.

Rather than being in shock, as many believed, or worse, knowing he’d been sold out by members of his own administration as conspiratory theorists argue, Bush said he was merely trying to project calm.

Bush wrote in his memoirs: “I'd had enough experience as governor of Texas during some disasters to know that the reaction of the leader is essential in the first stage of any crisis.”

Well not many people believe that he was just ‘projecting calm’, and he wasn’t particularly calm when he later called for Osama Bin Laden to be brought in “dead or alive”.

Whichever account of Bush’s actions one accepts, history now tells us that the US response to the Al Qaeda threat was exactly what terrorists would want.

Anyone old enough to remember the shock of those attacks will understand why the US was driven to define Al Qaeda as tantamount to a rogue state that could be tackled by a conventional war.

Not lunatics. Not criminals. But warriors who wanted a war ... and the West was damned if it wasn’t going to oblige.

It was the wrong choice. We were damned because we did oblige, and the power vacuum in Iraq, and the massing of extremist forces in Syria, are some of the ghastly results.

That is not to say no response was called for – only that a more sober, methodical dismantling of the criminal groups who perpetrate terrorist acts would have been more fruitful.

But have we learned anything from that fiasco? We now seem to be again on the brink of allowing a force of between 10,000 and 17,000 extremists to define a conflict – with themselves as glorious warriors, rather than lunatics and criminals.

The brutal video of the beheading of James Foley is a symbolic missile fired into the heart of the liberal democracies that the IS fanatics so despise.

Their greatest joy is watching the missile explode and rip holes in our democratic political culture, when we could so easily choose to defuse its destructive force.

That is why Prime Minister Abbott’s suggestion that beheadings could happen in Australia is George W Bush-like in its wrong-headedness.

Abbott told reporters on Thursday: “As for the apparent truth that the murderer was a British citizen, it just goes to show that while these events are taking place far from our shores, they can have ramifications right around the world

“It just goes to show that this is not just something that happens elsewhere, it could happen in countries like Australia if we relax our vigilance against terrorism and potential terrorism here on our shores.”

Well now is not the time to ‘relax’ our vigilance, but Abbott is proposing strengthening terror laws to target 150 or so Australians returning from the Syrian and Iraq conflicts -- the source of fear of home-grown beheadings.

ASIO already tracks these individuals. Australian laws already criminalises combatants' actions.

Abbott’s comments have led a large group of Muslim community organisations to release a joint statement to complain that: “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.”

Increased hostilities between Muslims and non-Muslims, left and right, libertarians and authoritarians, are exactly the outcome the authors of the beheading video wish to see.

They want Western governments to curtail civil liberties, and for tabloid elements in the media to perpetuate crude stereotypes of blood-thirsty Muslims.

But just as Bush had a choice in how he responded to 9/11, politicians and journalists here have a choice about how to respond to the savagery of beheadings -- how to tell this story.

The beheadings are acts of deluded savagery by a force of up to 17,000 fighters who seriously expect to achieve a single global state through violent means.

To the extent that disturbed individuals in Australia try to out-do them, they will be dealt with under the rule of law like everyone else.

Political statements and media coverage are far better spent on examining and strengthening that rule of law – and finding the right balance between theoretical ‘liberties’ and pragmatic responsibilities.

Just weeks ago Australia was in a free-speech debate, led by Attorney General George Brandis’s assertion that “people do have a right to be bigots”.

But when Clive Palmer called China -- or was it just Citic Pacific employees? -- “mongrels” and “bastards”, the free-speech advocates were absent from the national debate.

To repeat a controversial point I made on Thursday, we should be proud to live in a country in which free speech allows idiotic things to be said ... and for their idiocy to be firmly pointed out by others. The more extreme forms of hate speech are rightly outlawed already. 

Civilised, democratic debate is the precious core of our society -- and that makes it a target for the symbolic missiles sent by groups such as the Islamic State.

To the extent they rouse us to anger, and provoke ill-considered responses, as happened with 9/11, the missile can be said to have ‘exploded’. Let's not let that happen again.

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