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Len Richards - Backwoods terror?

Backwoods terror?

By Len Richards

Anti-terror laws are a legislative response to a political problem. The New Zealand anti-terror laws seem motivated more by extraneous concerns about mollifying the demands of the US ruling elite (themselves a group responsible for more civilian killings by military violence than any designated terrorist group could ever hope to effect) than by any real threat of terrorism inside our country.

As we all know, the only terrorist bombing that has taken a life within the borders of Aotearoa was the Rainbow Warrior sinking executed by the French secret service. Notoriously, neither our own spy agencies nor our putative allies' spy agencies gave any warning of this outrage.

So what of the "anti-terrorist raids" of recent weeks? Have we developed a home-grown terrorist culture with individuals or groups willing and able to wreak violent destruction on the social and material fabric of our relatively peaceful society? The jury is still out on this, but what is clear is that new anti-terror laws were not necessary to deal with any such real or perceived threat. The police already had sufficient powers to deal with arms and conspiratorial offences.

The greatest threat posed by the new 'anti-terror' laws is to otherwise legitimate political action by opponents (and defenders) of the status quo. The Council of Trade Unions has called for the repeal of the anti-terrorism laws and is right to express its concern. The laws will be able to be used against those taking action to disrupt economic activity to force a government to act in some particular way. This would clearly threaten union strike action against, say, the reintroduction of anti-union laws along the lines of the Employment Contracts Act of the 1990s.

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The political groups and individuals targeted in the recent raids are a disparate gaggle of anarchists, Maori-sovereignty campaigners, peace and rights activists along with at least one possibly deranged or disturbed individual. Are they terrorists? Well if we are talking about Al Qaeda or the IRA, the French DGSE or the CIA, then no, there is no comparison. However, was there a likelihood that someone or some sub-group within the targeted and arrested people was capable of and planning armed or violent action that could have injured or killed people? This is, as yet, an open question.

In the relatively recent past, activist groups and individuals have utilised explosive devices for political purposes in New Zealand. Tim Shadbolt relates in his book Bullshit and Jelly Beans the story of "The Bombers" who carried out a campaign of thirteen bomb attacks on "military bases and conservative establishments throughout the country". Their first attack was on the Waitangi flagpole in 1969. This small group centred around the Bower brothers who came from a troubled background. These young politicos, frustrated by the seeming ineffectiveness of more conventional protest action like demonstration marches, sit-ins etc (particularly against the US invasion of Vietnam), turned to 'direct action'. No-one was hurt, and the bombers never intended to hurt anyone, but bombs could obviously do harm to people if they happened upon the scene inadvertently.

The police and justice department did not need special anti-terror powers to deal with these young men. As Shadbolt wrote: "Everyone realised that they were guilty, including themselves, but everyone also realised that they were not really criminals." Nevertheless, not many quibbled with the four to five-year jail sentences that three of them eventually received.

Chris Trotter reminded us in his last Sunday Star-Times column that in 1981 some anti-springbok tour protesters used a bomb to disrupt Wellington's passenger rail system on the day of a rugby match in that city. Other potentially dangerous stunts like the threat of flying a small plane into a packed football stadium were also utilised in the service of this undoubtedly just cause. Serious damage was done to television broadcast equipment on at least one occasion. Mass action of people to block roads and motorways was another tactic utilised by anti-springbok tour protesters in 1981.

Could the perpetrators of the 'direct action' tactics in 1969-70 or in 1981 be called terrorists? Well they could, and some undoubtedly would give them this nomenclature, but it would be stretching the definition of the meaning of "terrorism" to do so.

Bombing and killing or injuring hundreds of innocent holidaymakers in Bali; bombing the tube train and double-decker bus in London; flying hundreds of passengers to their deaths while using jet-planes as flying bombs to kill thousands of others; blowing up drinkers in an English pub; blowing up the Rainbow Warrior with total disregard to the safety of those on board; air-strike and guided missile bombing of civilians with high explosive, napalm and cluster bombs: that is terrorism.

Running around the bush with guns is not terrorism. Thousands of people do this every week in New Zealand - it is usually called "hunting". Nevertheless, if police had solid information that lives were being threatened or endangered by misguided political activists who saw themselves as acting in the tradition of the guerrilla freedom fighter, then no one in New Zealand would expect anything else but that the police would act to stop such threats in their tracks.

Some questions must be asked, however. The first question that arises is; did the police act judiciously in their 'invasion' of the Tuhoe country, given the past history of the Maori of that area? The second question is; are draconian anti-terror laws that could potentially outlaw hitherto legitimate political activities necessary to deal with such a threat, whether real or perceived?

The answer to both questions must be a resounding; No!

The additional question that left and green political activists should be addressing themselves to is; what are the acceptable limits of direct political action? For example; is planning to assassinate leading establishment figures (as has been claimed by some; George Bush or Helen Clark) an acceptable political strategy? For the socialist left, terrorism has always been seen as the preserve of the despairing and the disconnected, usually petit-bourgeois, members of society who try to substitute individual action for the action of the masses.

Left-activists must defend democratic rights from erosion by the passage of draconian legislation, but they should also be careful about how far they go down the road of defending the provocative actions of wild-catting individuals who, inadvertently (or possibly deliberately), discredit the just causes we fight for and pave the way for attacks by the right and the state on the hard-won democratic rights we currently have.


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