Raising Australia’s terrorist alert to “High” raises a number of concerns not least of which is that as a society we are not prepared for the mass casualty attack that is now probable rather than possible. So far our status as the lucky country has insulated us from the horrors of a 911, London underground, Mumbai or Madrid incident. Even Bali was overseas, if somewhat close. We may not always be so fortunate.
As a result of the national and international terrorist events of the 1960’s and ‘70’s the Commonwealth established a number of counter-terrorist capabilities in each jurisdiction including hostage negotiation, bomb disposal, surveillance, assault teams, emergency medical response, multiple fatality handling and improved intelligence systems. The funding and maintenance of the capabilities has moved to the States. While governments maintain an awareness of crime prevention, priorities for spending are now on social, environmental and other issues. Recent events show that the intelligence and investigative capabilities are active, let us hope the tactical response capabilities have also been maintained to the levels needed.
There have been many politically motivated acts of violence in Australia over the last 150 years. Some will remember the Hilton bombing of 1978 when 3 died and 11 were injured but there have been numerous others. There were plans to cause disruption and significant casualties uncovered during the police Operation Pandenis of the early 2000’s. In the mid-1980’s members of one ethnic group planned to blow up critical infrastructure as a precursor to bombing a gathering of the opposing community. In both instances the plots were foiled through sound police work, timely intelligence and good community liaison.
Australia has yet to see a significant mass casualty event. The largest casualty event in modern Australia was the 1985 bombing of a church in Casula, Sydney resulting in one killed and 79 wounded. An appropriate reminder that the motive may be cultural or religious but may also be from left or right wing extremists, animal or eco activists, ethno-nationalists fighting their causes in Australia, personal grievances or mental illness. The Casula bombing, although never proven, was probably a family dispute.
Within Australia there is no real acceptance, outside of senior planners, that such an incident can occur or any understanding of what the social implications will be. The shock of an atrocity on home soil will result in mass panic, public outrage, accusations and inquiries, and a realignment of government priorities and spending. There will probably be a backlash against whichever community is believed responsible; something of which community leaders are well aware. There will be wild accusations and many “talking heads” expounding in the media.
As thought leaders, particularly in the security field, is it our responsibility to prepare ourselves to assist in promoting an accurate picture of what happened, what can reasonably be done to prevent similar acts, what measures were in place and why they did or did not work, to help institute reasonable additional responses that are not knee jerk reactions, and to counter the ill-informed and emotional commentaries that will arise? Basically, to help Australia and Australian’s recover some degree of equilibrium as quickly as possible?
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