The hysteria currently being concocted by Australia’s political leaders may be a smokescreen for the more serious threat facing us – an attack of the very freedoms and values our country has been built on. The Abbott government’s recent fear-mongering, antagonistic strategies are heading in a direction reminiscent of other historical governments, even if it is difficult for us to recognise this direction from within.

Writing in December, 1987 the Moscow correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, Xan Smiley, reflected that ‘I often mention that compulsory national service in Britain and America was abandoned about a generation ago – and they [Soviet citizens] always look at me in disbelief. Everything here is mentally geared up for war. Readiness for war against capitalism is part of education. We in the West, it is assumed, are psychologically even readier.’

The kind of propaganda that made these misunderstandings so prevalent is not an anachronism of the Cold War. I was recently having dinner with a friend in Beijing – a Chinese-born, American-educated teacher at one of China’s best universities – when he surprised me by saying that he missed Chairman Mao. Most Chinese people, he posited, feel the same way.

My friend is well versed in both the realities and the revisionism of Chinese history. He knows how many people died in the Great Famine, he understands the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and he knows the ruthless details of the Communists Party’s decision to unleash the army on peaceful student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But, for him, Mao’s reign and his theory of permanent revolution represents a time when China refused to be bullied by other powers. China may be more powerful now, but his response revealed that he construes the current, diplomatic state of Chinese politics to be one of national feebleness.

This will be difficult for many Australians – with our liberal education and belief in democratic traditions – to understand. We instantly recognise these manufactured realities as the shams they are. Similarly, it’s evident from our modern perspective that Soviet leaders had far greater control over the people if everyone thought they were on the brink of nuclear war. Similarly, in many ways Mao’s leadership still legitimises the rule of the party he founded, so it’s in their interest to preserve his personality cult.

But when it comes to spotting these spurious constructs in one’s own time and in one’s own society the task isn’t so easy. Reading history doesn’t adequately convey the thoughts that must have consumed ordinary people’s daily lives. Nuclear war, after all, was a genuine threat. Just as today terrorism is a genuine threat.  But Tony Abbott’s response to it is a sinister reminder that dictatorships don’t have a monopoly on harnessing societal fears to serve political ends.

His uncharacteristically candid speech on Monday warned that his government would be forced to wind back the civil liberties that have been developed over centuries and that now form the cornerstone of our liberal democracy:

Regrettably, for some time to come, Australians will have to endure more security than we are used to and more inconvenience than we would like. Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some so that there can be more protection for others. After all, the most basic freedom of all is the freedom to walk the streets unharmed and to sleep safe in our beds at night.

Mr Abbott’s eagerness to join the fight reeked of an unpopular leader pouncing on an opportunity to look prime ministerial and unite a nation under the banner of war. And in many ways his statement is the natural corollary of that – the same thing happened following 9/11. What better way to maintain support for an unwinnable and ill-conceived war than to hold the whole country to ransom? The prime minister’s hucksterish inference – that if we don’t submit to these punitive proposals we risk being killed – attacks the very sinew of our society.

Why we have to relinquish some of our civil liberties and create extraordinary laws has not yet been properly explained; after all, if someone plans to commit a murder – the allegation made in the wake of the raids in Sydney and Brisbane last week – then surely our current laws are sufficient to prosecute.

Why do we need to change the burden of proof, as was proposed for people returning from Syria or Iraq? Why should we be content to let ASIO break the law in extraordinary circumstance, as the new National Security Legislation Bill would allow? Implicit in all these attacks on our rights is the idea that ‘terrorism’ is a new phenomenon – which it plainly is not.

What has changed is our conception of it: a Muslim accused of plotting a random act of violence is a ‘terrorist’, but a Canberra man who strapped knives to his body and threw a Molotov cocktail at police last week is just a rogue criminal who didn’t pose a threat to national security. Abbott speaks of the ‘some’ who may have further restrictions placed on them, but these will not be second-generation Irish-Australians. The latent racism in these comments and the discrimination that has already begun to surface may well, if left unchecked, threaten the multiculturalism that underpins modern Australian society.

It is in times of fear – real of manufactured – that individual rights and freedoms are carved up. The myth that it’s being done in order to make us all safer is nothing more than a populist cover and, rather that just being an attack on ‘potential terrorists,’ it’s an attack on all Australians – our values, history, political traditions and character.

In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More – mocked by Roper for his insistence that everyone ought to be given the benefit of the rule of law, even the Devil – puts it thus:

…when the law was down, and the Devil turned around on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?… Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

It may be obscured by all the talk of messianic-genocidal-death-cults, but rest assured, the greatest threat to Australia at this time is not terrorism, it’s the people writing the laws to give you the illusion you’re safe from it.

Image credit: DonkeyHotey