The limits according to whom?

John Howard’s declaration of war against “terrorist incitement” is heating up and today’s Australian (unintentionally) outlines the absurdity of the proposed changes:

“John Howard said yesterday the new offence would enable legal action to be taken against those who incite violence, including terrorist acts, against the Australian community, including against forces overseas and in support of Australia’s enemies.

“Under this model, someone saying they supported Osama bin Laden would not be guilty of an offence, but someone who urged bin Laden and al-Qa’ida to “wage holy war” on Australian troops in Iraq or Afghanistan would be. A person wearing a T-shirt sporting the slogan “I hate Australians” would also escape prosecution but a person wearing one urging “All good jihadists to kill Australians” would not.

“But the law could also be problematic for the media if, for example, their reports about mistreatment of prisoners of war, as happened in the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, led to a backlash against Australian troops.”

Perhaps Howard has been getting advice from David Horowitz, one of America’s leading conservative commentators. Reading him is like hearing a belligerent, frightened, panicky and paranoid family member. Best to ignore him, in other words, but his strong desire to shut down dissent in America – his bio claims he is an “outspoken opponent of censorship” – and punish “enemies” of America resonates with the times and is the spirit in which Howard introduces his draconian legislation.

Here is Horowitz on Iraq and the “Left”:

“This war is not based on lies as the left claims. It is, however, a war that has been betrayed by the leadership of the Democratic Party which authorised it, but then turned against it when Howard Dean soared to the top of the polls. The result of this unprecedented betrayal of America in time of war has been the confusion of millions of Americans who trust the leadership of the Democratic Party. This confusion is more than dangerous. It is undermining the morale of our troops and encouraging our terrorist enemies to think that they can win this war if they kill enough Americans and Iraqis in the Middle East.

“The malicious campaign of the left to attack the war to liberate Iraq as a war “based on lies”… is in effect a psychological warfare campaign conducted against this country and its men and women in arms. Its aim is to sap the will of America to fight its enemies in Iraq – and not only in Iraq. If [Cindy] Sheehan and the left are successful in their seditious effort to force an American surrender to the terrorists Iraq, we will be forced to fight them in our own country, in which case tens of thousands of Americans may die, and…Sheehan will be among those responsible.”

A strong and rational argument, to be sure. His “goals” in Iraq include providing “the Iraqis with as much democracy as they can handle.” The facts on the ground, and the ever-growing insurgency, are the direct result of Bush administration policy, and not, as Horowitz laughably suggests, because of the Left or Cindy Sheehan.

Howard needs to think very carefully before he implements his latest legislation. If he believes that outlawing “incitement” under his intentionally vague definitions will stop the chance of a terrorist attack in Australia, he is sadly mistaken. Free speech is the cornerstone of democracy and he may soon find the jails very full with any number of journalists, writers, academics, citizens and true patriots. Horowitz makes it very clear that he believes anti-war activists are “conducting an unprincipled and open-ended war – at this point mainly a propaganda war – against [their] own country”. He chastises the media for the Abu Ghraib scandal because it embarrassed the government, not because of the revelations.

We should be under no illusion that Howard wants to marginalise dissent to government policy, especially foreign policy objectives. He, like Horowitz, regards this legitimate political protest as “treasonous”. I know what my response will be.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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