IN a sense, the celebrations to herald in 2003 on Tuesday night ended with a great sigh of relief for millions of Australians.
Not because the year just past was “seared forever in our memory with unimaginable evil and sorrow” – as Opposition Leader Simon Cream aptly describes it – but because the fear of a terrorist attack in Australia did not materialise as originally thought.
Half of Sydney’s Central Business District was closed to cars on New Year’s Eve to prevent bombings and protect pedestrians during the celebrations.
Searches for explosives were carried out on public transport and at landmarks. But the streets in all the major cities were not as busy as they were in previous years.
Police estimates on the turnouts were down as much as 30% over the previous year’s crowds. And the atmosphere across the nation was, understandably, subdued. Many people chose to stay at home to celebrate the occasion with their children.
Nevertheless, thousands of revellers defied the potential threat in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to watch the spectacular fireworks displays.
Symbolically was a message that began with a flaming boat on Sydney Harbour to the thunderous music of German composer Richard Wagner and ended with the word peace to replace the dove in the centre of the fireworks. Was it meant for Iraq or the al-Qaeda network?
Strict security precautions were taken and extra policemen in uniform and plain clothes, including the elite police response groups, were posted at strategic points after the Howard government launched the first of a series of public campaign against terrorism last Sunday.
“Be alert, but not alarmed,” says the A$15mil campaign, warning that terrorism has changed the world and Australia is not immune to the threat.
The three-month campaign, in 28 languages, urges the community to look out for Australia and to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. It tells them that the government will, over the coming weeks, provide more information on how they could “work together to protect” their own way of life.
But how can one be alert and not alarmed at something that is not easily recognisable at a time when 54% of the respondents in a survey believe Australia is less safe a place in 2003?
Prime Minister John Howard agrees that the finding is true, but points out that his task is to “balance proper warning with a reassurance that life must go on, should go on and will go on.”
He has enormous faith in the capacity of Australians to respond to the government call in a sensible way.
He relies on the fact that Australians are the most adaptable people in the world, whose greatest characteristic is that they’re essentially a “classless” society, able to work more readily, more easily and more spontaneously than many other societies.
But he can’t guarantee that some bigoted people won’t behave in an outrageous, perverse fashion – as the Muslim community in Australia fears.
All he could say to Australians of Arabic and Islamic background is that there is nothing in the TV campaign that targets them.
“In fact, every attempt is made to send the message that Muslims are as much a part of the Australian community as the rest of us,” Howard says categorically.
“I want to make it clear (that) I don’t want any scapegoating. Decent people of all backgrounds are in this thing together and I don’t want anyone being pushed around in this country because they happen to be Muslim.
“That is not the Australian way and it won’t be tolerated. Terrorism is a threat to them as much as (it is) to me or you.”
The community is asked to report suspicious behaviour through a toll-free hotline number to the Office of National Security. What is suspicious, of course, depends on the circumstances and the environment in which it happens.
In less than a week, more than 1,000 reports of suspicious behaviour have been made to the authorities. How many are hoaxes and how many are genuine are unknown at this stage.
A university student was arrested and charged with creating a false report that a group of Aboriginal Muslim extremists (later found to be non-existent) planned to detonate petrol bombs among New Year revellers in Perth.
It cost the police A$5,616 to investigate the report. The police finally arrested Alden Clinch, who pleaded guilty and was released on bail to reappear in court on Jan 31 for sentencing.
However, every report, no matter how insignificant, is being examined in an effort to prevent a potential terrorist act.
It is an enormous task for the police, yet it is imperative at this time, especially when Australia is on the verge of joining a possible US-led war on Iraq.
Speculation is rife that the war would begin at midnight on Feb 21. If this occurs over the dispute on weapons of mass destruction, it will be the third major conflict for Iraq, which has been under 12 years of international sanctions since President Saddam Hussein came into power in 1979.
And if Canberra sends troops to battle the Iraqis, Australia is almost certain to become a major target of the al-Qaeda terrorists.
For this reason and the aftermath of the Bali bombings, which killed 88 Australians on Oct 12, Australia is spending A$1.4bil to strengthen its counter-terrorism capabilities.
The new measures include, among other things, strengthening domestic and overseas intelligence resources.
Border security is being tightened to detect unauthorised arrivals and new equipment and training are provided for emergency services to deal with chemical, biological and radiological threats.
In addition, Australia will relocate some of its overseas diplomatic missions to guard against terrorist attacks. These changes, to be funded from an unprecedented increased budget of A$31.7mil on diplomatic security, will turn the missions in high-risk regions into semi-fortresses along the lines of many US embassies.
The Howard government has also been given a run-down of how vulnerable some highly sensitive government buildings are to terrorist attacks.
For example, the Attorney-General and Prime Minister and Cabinet departments, which are vital to intelligence and emergency coordination, rate between one and two out of 10, according to former security chief Brig Malcolm McKenzie-Orr.
He rates the Prime Minister’s Canberra residence, The Lodge, as well protected. So is the residence of Governor-General at Yarralumia, but not so the residence of the Defence Chief of the Armed Forces General Peter Cosgrove although it has a perimeter fence.
Access to the roof of Parliament House in Canberra – a favourite spot for thousands of tourists every year – will be closed next month.
There is no doubt that terrorism has changed the life of Australians in general. Despite the terrorist threats and the looming war with Iraq, the community has been asked by Howard to go about their normal life – be alert but not alarmed.
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