This morning on ABC radio Attorney General George Brandis said something quite mundane yet absolutely critical in regard to the apparent ISIS-related terrorist plot disrupted by police in Sydney yesterday:
I want to emphasise the point, and it can't be stressed enough: yesterday's police operation was about crime. It was about disrupting a criminal network that meant to do Australians harm.
Along with NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione's calls for calm yesterday ('We don't need to whip this up'), this is precisely the right tone. This is a criminal matter and we need not elevate it beyond that. Our leaders need to strike a tone of resilience, stoicism and quiet resolve rather than anger and outrage. As Waleed Aly says this morning:
Long-term, it's about us. It's about how resilient we are as a society, and how focused we are in our response. There is one very clear way in which this alleged plot can succeed, even if it is never carried out: that we become so emotionally manipulated, so provoked, that we end up helplessly polarised.
Unfortunately, we have done ourselves no favours in this regard by so eagerly embracing America's military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a strategy which significantly inflates the actual threat posed by the group. And Brandis' language has not always been so measured. Last week he said ISIS 'represents or seeks to be an existential threat to us.' It's a vast exaggeration to say that ISIS could threaten Australia's existence as a political and cultural entity, and the fact that Brandis felt it necessary to throw in 'or seeks to be' just exposes the vast gap between ISIS's capabilities and its intentions.
The Australian Government could take some guidance from President Obama here. For although he has embarked on what I would consider an unnecessary and possibly counter-productive escalation of military operations against ISIS, his language in doing so has been quite measured.
Throughout his term of office, Obama has been ruthless in using military force to kill terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. Yet he seldom hypes the threat. Even in his speech announcing expanded military operations against ISIS, he painted the threat in realistic terms: 'We can't erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.' He also said there was no hint that IS had targeted the US. It was an admirably honest assessment, which just made the military escalation he announced immediately after sound all the more precipitate.
Obama's language is notably more moderate than that of the Bush Administration, when al Qaeda was routinely described as an existential threat. Back in 2004, then Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry was attacked by President Bush's campaign for saying that America's aim ought to be to once again 'make terrorism a nuisance'. This wasn't anywhere good enough for the GOP, which even amid the unfolding disaster of Iraq, maintained the absurd fantasy that terrorism could be permanently eliminated.
But Kerry and Obama are both right. Terrorism cannot be eliminated, but it is containable, and we only make the problem worse by hyping the threat.