During the pre-dawn of April 18, 2015, police raided a number of homes in south-western Melbourne. To say the raids were a media circus would be an understatement. Charges were laid against five young men pursuant to anti-terror laws. The men were accused of plotting to attack police officers as well as citizens gathering to commemorate ANZAC Day. The plot was allegedly inspired by remarks by leaders of Islamic State for young Western men to randomly kill civilians.
In Britain, charges have been laid against two adolescents who have since pleaded guilty to involvement in the thwarted Melbourne attack.
Local media had a field day circus after being fed by police information and allegations against the arrested men. The nerves of Australians were on edge over attacks on the larger-than-usual turnout to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. Pundits, terrorism "experts" and politicians appeared in newspapers and on TV screens confirming the narrative of fear. Some months later, Prime Minister Tony Abbott even declared to delegates at a summit on countering violent extremism that
... as far as the Daesh death cult is concerned, they're coming after us.
In this environment of hysteria, it would have been a sacrilege to suggest that one of accused, 18-year-old Harun Causevic, perhaps wasn't the best candidate for placement in a maximum security isolation unit. A young man with no criminal record might be spending 23 hours each day in the company of hardened criminals? Still, in tabloid terror terms, the man is already guilty as charged. Human rights aren't an issue.
But now it seems the major terrorism charges against Causevic have been dropped. Causevic wasn't part of Tony Abbott's "death cult" after all. At worst, he was a young man in possession of knives and other weapons. Causevic is now out on bail.
It is easy to blame the police for pursuing these matters. But we must remember police are under enormous pressure to protect us from enemies whom they – and we – barely understand. To think that terrorism experts are still arguing over whether the actions of Man Monis constituted terrorism.
Police are expected to use an arsenal of vague, often poorly drafted and draconian laws repeatedly reinforced over more than a decade and which represent a massive departure from the criminal justice system. And if that isn't enough, the Abbott government is hoping to give them even more powers.
Following Causevic's release on bail, Federal and Victoria Police stated they could legitimately take "overt" action if they had reasonable grounds to suspect someone was planning a terror attack. Defence lawyer Rob Stary sought an apology and an ex gratia payment for his client, claiming there was no real evidence against Causevic. Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton refused to apologise on the basis that
... no one acted in bad faith here … With the nature of terrorism offences it is inevitable you will see these types of cases occur.
So police will frequently prosecute terror cases where the evidence is so minor that charges will have to be withdrawn. Meanwhile a young man with no criminal record will remain in the worst form of custody, arrested and then released following a media circus. There are likely to be more young men in Causevic's situation, men whom the community will find guilty until proven guiltier.
The powers given to police and intelligence agents have been abused. In the 2003 case of Izhar Ul-Haque, a 21-year-old medical student, the trial judge described the conduct of ASIO agents as "grossly improper" and "reminiscent of Kafka". The agents were found to have "committed the criminal offences of false imprisonment and kidnapping at common law". The charges against eventually dropped.
Repeatedly reinforced vague laws exist because we have been convinced that death by terrorism is somehow more evil and nasty than death by murder or dying in a road accident with a drunken or stoned driver. Women dying at the hands of their partners weren't deserving of the same protection before their death as potential victims of death by death cult.
Further, the way we define terrorism says a lot about how we view ourselves as a nation. Harun Causevic is of Bosnian heritage. He is European. He is white. Imagine if he had driven up to police carrying not a black flag with white Arabic writing. Imagine if it was a flag of the Australian Defence League or some other white extremist organisation whose members are known to bring weapons to Reclaim Australia rallies and who carry out violent attacks on women. Would he have subjected to a dawn raid? Would he have spent four months in the company of some of the most dangerous men in Victoria?
Before 9/11, our police and intelligence services already had an arsenal of laws to help them keep us safe. Even if it could be argued that the hyper-legislation against terrorism was necessary, imagine how difficult it must be for agencies to do their job properly when under pressure from incompetent poll-driven governments act on the basest (often sectarian) instincts.
Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. First published in The Canberra Times on 2 September 2015.