Daily Media Quotation
Every Move We Make
September 9, 2006
by Cameron Stewart - The Australian
For most of us, the war on terror has seemed like a distant battle: a conflict being fought on our television screens, well away from the routine life of Australian suburbia with its shopping malls, footy clubs and school drop-offs.
To some extent this is true. Few Australians would say their lives have been changed fundamentally since the terror attacks of 9/11 five years ago, even if the world as we knew it has changed a lot.
There are clear and tragic exceptions to this, of course, such as those who lost their lives in the Bali bombings and in other terror attacks overseas, and their families. There are also the hundreds of soldiers and police who find themselves living overseas on terror's front line while their families wait anxiously at home.
Most Australians, however, still see the war on terror as a problem that affects the lives of others. But is this really the case? In the past five years, many aspects of Australian life have quietly been transformed, often without us noticing. We are now more watched and scrutinised than ever, we face security checks in the most unlikely places, we can't park where we used to, travelling by plane is more of an ordeal, we are more suspicious than we once were, and we arouse suspicion if we behave oddly.
Most people say the extra security checks at airports are the most onerous terror-related change to their lives, but they rarely consider how much has changed behind the scenes.
Take a regular Saturday in any Australian town or city: a father might visit a hardware store, then perhaps a travel agent to discuss a family holiday before taking his kids to the football and going out for dinner with his wife later that evening.
At his local shopping mall, he is confronted with new parking restrictions and possibly even concrete pylons designed to thwart would-be suicide car bombers. As he walks to the hardware store, he is filmed by newly installed closed-circuit TV cameras aimed at detecting suspicious behaviour. In the hardware store, he selects chemicals to make fertiliser for his large suburban garden. But if he buys too much of a particular chemical, one that could also potentially be used to construct a bomb, he will be reported by the store's owner as a person of suspicion, as the Government has requested of hardware store owners and chemical producers.
At the travel agency, when discussing possible overseas holiday options he will be advised to first consult the travel warnings issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. These warnings, comprehensively rewritten since 9/11 and Bali, will tell him bluntly which holiday destinations are most vulnerable to a terrorist bomb.
At the football that afternoon, the father cannot just walk through the gates to his seat, as he once did.
Instead, his family is confronted by a phalanx of security men who search his bags and those of his young children. Years ago they would have been searching only for banned alcohol, but these days they also search for evidence of homemade bombs and other weapons.
That night at dinner, the couple do not realise that what they are eating comes from a source that is now subject to a National Food Chain Safety and Security Strategy to help prevent terror attacks via food.
The war on terror is being fought on the quiet, with a raft of new precautions, often invisible, aimed at ensuring innocent Australians do not become the victims of terror.
The most obvious change to our lives since 9/11 is that air travel has been transformed. In the 1980s movie satire Flying High, a man walking through security takes off his artificial limb and puts it through the X-ray machine. It was a good joke for the times, except that now life is imitating art and it's no joke. Not only must air travellers submit artificial limbs for scrutiny, they may be asked to sip their baby's milk in order to prove it does not contain liquid explosives.
Checked-in bags will be X-rayed and if we mistakenly leave one of them unattended for more than a few minutes, we may return to find it being examined by police with sniffer dogs.
Before we board the plane, our names are run through national security checklists to ensure we are not on a wanted list. Personal security check areas at airports now resemble a clothing store, with passengers shedding belts, shoes and whatever other items make the sensitive metal-detecting machines bleep as we walk through them.
Carry-on baggage is scrutinised as never before, with any possible weapon-like item, down to and including tweezers, being banned from flights.
We are frequently required to turn our laptop computers on to prove they are not bombs.
Since the latest aborted terror threat in London, cabin baggage has been further pared back on some international flights, with all liquids banned from the cabin.
Any person flying in Australia is now subject to random additional security checks of varying degrees of invasiveness at the discretion of airport authorities.
On board the plane, the pilots are now locked behind well-secured doors to prevent a repeat of the suicide hijackings of September 11.
Once back on the ground, there are other noticeable signs that the world has changed. Important public buildings are now ringed by concrete barriers to thwart would-be suicide bombers.
Parking restrictions outside these buildings are severe and those who ignore them are swiftly punished. CCTV cameras, once the exception in such places, are now the norm.
In many cases our employers - especially if they are a large business involved with so-called critical national infrastructure - have also introduced a range of security measures to protect sensitive information and facilities that could be of use if they fell into terrorist hands. Our ports and other maritime centres are now buzzing with security guards, while in the area of computers and information technology, the Government has advised businesses on how to lock out computer hackers and potential cyber-terrorists.
This is not the era to be a money-launderer, with Government authorities cracking down on funny money as never before, fearing it could be used to fund terrorism. Many groups that once operated freely in Australia are now banned: since 2002, the Government has listed 19 organisations as terrorist groups.
The nation's hospitals and government health authorities are preparing for the worst by building up stockpiles of drugs and medicines to combat any attempted biological terror attack on Australian soil. Across the nation on any given day, we can see evidence of the terror threat in a much larger police presence at all manner of events than was the case before 9/11.
For many of the nation's federal police and soldiers, the war on terror has had a much more direct impact. Hundreds of them have been sent in recent years to distant lands to help detect and prosecute terrorists and to assist in peacekeeping tasks in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the nation's new armies in the war on terror is also the most invisible.
Since 9/11 the spy game has come back into vogue, with Australia's main spy agencies sharply boosting their ranks to help detect possible threats at home.
The terrorist threat has done what the end of the Cold War failed to achieve: it has made spying respectable again.
Another less visible aspect of the war on terror has been the subjugation of some legal rights as part of tough new laws, a sacrifice the Government says is a necessary trade-off to guard against the threat of a terrorist attack.
Although most Australians have probably not thought about it, we have all paid heavily for this war since 9/11.
Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent by the Government in the past five years to fund overseas military deployments and larger domestic spy and law enforcement bodies, and to protect critical infrastructure.
Anyone seeking a new passport today will be given a biometric one to guard against the identity fraud commonly used by terrorists to avoid scrutiny.
One of the most important effects on our lives of the war on terror has been psychological. The fear of an attack is very real for many people.
Although no terrorist attack has taken place in Australia in the past five years, the threat has occupied a relatively large place in the national psyche, not least because of the widespread media coverage of atrocities committed overseas as well as domestic threats.
The Government has also kept the issue front and centre in the national debate with an advertising campaign advising us to be alert but not alarmed and to report any suspicious activity to the Government's terror hotline, which has taken more than 80,000 calls since it was set up in late 2002.
The impact of Australia's war on terror is, of course, much greater if you are a Muslim Australian. Many Muslims here, moderates and fundamentalists alike, say they have been harassed or intimidated by non-Muslims.
But for the vast majority of Australians, the five years since 9/11 have been a quiet evolution rather than a revolution. Many aspects of our lives have changed as the nation steels itself against the threat. Yet there has been no attack and, so far, our fundamental way of life remains largely intact. That in itself has been the greatest victory of all.