Security should be the antidote to fear

An elderly couple posed this question to me yesterday: “What do you think? Should we be letting Muslims into the country?”

This is an otherwise good, you could say warmhearted, couple, who have worked all their life, raised families, built successful businesses, contributed to society and donated generously to charities; in other words, model citizens, the sort of people you would hope to grow to be yourself and for your children to do likewise.

The thing is, if a terrified family actually showed up at their door looking for help, I know their response would be instantly to help them; no questions asked and certainly no background checks based on religious beliefs.

But that’s how the politics of fear works, doesn’t it?

By creating depersonalised enemies, rather than addressing the plight of real people.

By spreading fear and ignorance in order to distract from their failure to provide real leadership.

But mostly by creating dangers where none in reality exist —regardless of how much it may destabilise communities.

Mostly, I told them, I’m frustrated by politicians and mouthpieces who talk up the so-called dangers of immigrant threats with no proof and the fact that when presenting proof to the contrary you meet a wall of confirmation bias and denial: “I get angry at politicians and the like claiming to be defending Australian values. They are not. Australia is built on the virtue of giving people a fair go. Australia has a proud history of saying, if you come to this country, are prepared to work hard, prepared to do your bit then, mate, you’re welcome here.”

But, they asked, what of a religion, they asked, that preached death to non-believers?

To me, I said, extremists of all kinds are a threat. I am as concerned about right-wing skinhead groups in Australia as I am about so-called lone-actor terrorists. Islamic extremists have as much to do with the average Muslim as the Klu Klux Klan, which claims to represent a pure form of Christianity, has to do with the average Christian. I asked: “Would you condemn all Christians on the basis of the beliefs and behaviour of the Klan?”

But, they asked, would I not insist that immigrants learn at least English before being granted residency?

I pointed out that I teach hundreds of students each year who speak English as an additional language, adding: “All of them want to improve their English skills because they see it as a way of improving their lives, not just here but around the world. English, after all, is the language of commerce. What is lacking is the opportunity to learn English.”

Rather than view lack of English skills as a matter of resistance, I suggested, we would do better to invest in providing learning opportunities that do not entail ideological agendas.

I shared an experience some years ago when some young Indonesian students came to me for advice about a group offering free English classes. The group in question was a Christian sect who intended to use their interpretation of scriptures as a text book. The problem, I pointed out, was not lack of English skills, after all these students were capable of studying topics such as engineering to undergraduate levels. The problem was idiomatic English; they would get confused about slang words and expressions. My solution was to meet them on Saturday mornings in a café, where they would read out news stories and magazine articles and query elements they did not understand, some of which was peculiar to Australia: “What’s a rort?” (A politician’s expenses claim.) Other times, it was a matter of context: “What’s a babe?” (Perhaps a young child, an attractive woman, or a talking pig in a movie.)

I concluded my chat with the couple by saying we need to really think about where we are spending money to tackle terrorism. Why are we pouring millions into intelligence apparatus — for example, paying for computers, cars and offices and staff that lack experience — and nothing into community building efforts, such as the Police Citizens Youth Clubs, or law enforcement initiatives, such as investigating hate crimes?

NSW Police, for example, has a bias crime unit, investigating crimes either motivated by religion, hate, or ideology, as well as crimes against the most vulnerable in society. This brings them into contact with a range of complex policing issues, whether it be attacks on Mosques, the rise in skinhead groups, or the disturbing increase in STDs in nursing homes, most likely the result of unreported sexual assaults. Given the range and importance of the work, would anyone say three police officers are sufficient to the task? Because, that’s all there are.

The fact is we need new ways to think about what security means and how to address security in society. In Victoria, one security officer at a shopping centre has reduced violent episodes to zero through working with youth. Hats off to the centre for funding him to do what he does, resulting in young people being diverted into education, work or psychiatric treatment.

Fundamentally, security professionals — regardless of rank or position — have a vital leadership role to play in our communities providing a much-needed antidote to fear. After all, happiness — far less peace — is impossible without authentic security.

We need to focus less on titivating politics designed to spread fear through gossip and more on creating societies where parents can go to work, provide safe homes, send their children to school, and enjoy the miracle of ordinary life many of us take for granted.

Rather than talking up dangers, we should be talking with people about how to deliver security outcomes that will contribute to a better world.

To be sure, it is slower, more challenging, and fails to deliver headlines, but it will result in a better Australia — one built, not on so-called Australian values but on true Australian virtues.

Be part of the change you want to see: Safeguarding Australia 2017 National Security Summit will examine the issue of violent extremism(s) with a panel including Sergeant Geoff Steer, NSW Police Bias Crime Unit, Mohammed Mustaffa, a security officer working with youth in Victoria, Lydia Shelley, a Muslim solicitor from Western Sydney, and Natalie O’Brien, an award-winning Australian journalist currently living in Jordan. Visit: