IT WAS JUST a skirmish in the “war on terror”, but its symbolic weight was much greater. Books were banned on planes in August 2006.
As authorities sought to disrupt what the British Home Secretary described as the “most sustained period of severe threat since the end of World War II”, stressed travellers were told to put all books, magazines and newspapers into their luggage. Airports plumbed new depths of chaos as every second passenger was searched, flights were cancelled, hand luggage was sent to the cargo hold, and permitted personal items displayed in plastic bags.
Banning passengers from reading was more than an inconvenience for those facing the tedium of a trans-continental flight: it was a precaution loaded with meaning.
We are repeatedly reminded that the “war on terror” is, at some elemental level, a battle over values and ideals, a battle between modernity and reason in the good corner and irrationality and ignorance in the bad. Yet at the moment of most severe threat, the target was not only hard-to-detect liquid explosives, but the symbol of enlightenment itself.
It may be difficult to sustain an argument that the average airport thriller adds much to personal or social enlightenment, but we know that books are a key to knowledge, insight, understanding, empathy and compassion. Yet, for reasons which have not been adequately explained, books were on the list of proscribed items, and passengers had no option but to while away the airborne hours watching the latest Hollywood schlock on impossibly small screens.
BOOKS ARE, OF course, combustible – both literally and metaphorically. And this is a reason why they have been censored, banned and burnt in bonfires by repressive regimes through the ages – not only in ancient times.
If the decision to ban books on planes was heavy with symbolism, it was also weighed down with irony.
One of the most telling critiques of the failure of the Islamic world to engage with the West in recent decades (and to honour its early contribution to the world of letters) rests as Martin Amis reminds us, on the small number of books translated each year into Arabic. It aggrieves Western writers and intellectuals that their work is not available to a substantial proportion of the world’s population, but this concern is not purely self-interested.
Without books and the ideas and information they contain, it is impossible to understand the world, one’s friends and neighbours or, just as importantly, one’s enemies.
Yet only one month before “printed matter” was being sent to the cargo holds of thousands of planes, two books were banned – or, in the language of the Classification Review Board, “refused classification” – in Australia. Defence of the Muslim Lands and Join the Caravan were the first books banned in this country since 1973, when the habit of banning books finally imploded under the weight of inherent absurdity and organised opposition.
The books banned this year were deemed to “promote or incite terrorist acts”. Some of those who have read them, including Frank Moorhouse as part of the research for his essay in this collection, “The writer in a time of terror”, are not convinced that – in a world overloaded with depictions and descriptions of terrorism, a world wide web bursting with potentially incendiary information – these books provide particular aid or comfort to the enemy, or are likely to urge, assist or glorify heinous terrorist crimes.
But, as a result of this ruling, the books can no longer be imported into this country or sold here, though the determined sleuth will find them online. Meanwhile, the Attorney-General has convinced his state counterparts that there is a need to consider even more restrictions on “extremist” books.
TERRORISM IS UNDOUBTEDLY a real and grave threat, but cool-headed critics fear that, in the ardour of what is repeatedly described as a “battle”, we risk emulating the enemy.
Islamist extremists do not welcome freedom of expression or open debate about ideas and beliefs, but the Western tradition is built on the free exchange of information. There is a danger that, in reacting to their punitive and narrow world view, we will be diminished, that caution and diffidence – even respectful consideration of the views of others – will mean we give away too much before we realise it.
Even US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared earlier in 2006: “I believe with every bone in my body that free people, exposed to sufficient information, will, over time, find their way to the right decisions.” Freedom of expression is one of the rights which have long been considered self-evident truths in the United States.
The pattern that Frank Moor-house reveals suggests that this belief is not one shared with similar fervour by the Australian Attorney-General. Instead, Moorhouse documents a series of incidents designed to limit freedom of expression and foster a climate of suppression. The resultant chill, he argues, extends well beyond the letter of the raft of anti-terrorist laws that have been passed in recent years, fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of communication, the emerging reality of life in the internet age and the enduring importance of freedom of expression to democratic systems – even in a time of terror.
IT IS EASY to forget that terrorism has been around for a long, long time. The notion of killing a few to intimidate many has been a tactic in ideological and military battles for centuries. In the last five years, according to the American National Center on Counter-Terrorism, the number of people killed by terrorist attacks worldwide has increased tenfold, from 838 in 2000 to 8,456 so far this year, nearly half in Iraq and Afghanistan (though many more have died in “traditional” combat in those war-torn lands).
The numbers are shocking – the pain for those who lost loved ones in such fruitless and random attacks all too real – but they remain relatively small. We need to maintain a sense of proportion while responding appropriately, with caution and care.
This may be a great ideological battle recast as a battle for values and faith, or it may be, as terrorism researcher Robert Pape argues in Dying to Win (Scribe, 2005), a tactic used to prosecute a war over territory and the occupation of homelands by foreign armies. If this is the case, it is a war that needs to be tackled with more than armed force.
President Bush has sought to call this as the Long War, but it needs to be remembered that the Cold War lasted for nearly four decades and, according to James Carroll in his impressive history House of War(Scribe, 2006), resulted in the deaths of twenty-one million people in innumerable proxy hot wars.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION was one of many casualties during the Cold War – and there are many lessons to be learnt from it in times like this.
Echoes of that long war surround us – of Prime Minister Menzies’ assertion that “wars against our enemies cannot be waged by a series of normal judicial processes”, of the rise in anxiety, of the fear of strangers who do not speak English, of the threats elsewhere half-heartedly made manifest at home, of the palpable fear of countless weapons of mass destruction being set off by a single button in the White House or Kremlin.
We are less likely to hear that, when the Communist Party was proscribed between 1940 and 1942 and driven underground, its membership quadrupled from 4,000 to 16,000, or of the corrosive damage the banning of books, research, writing, and the free expression of ideas had on this society.
Human beings can be perverse, but to take a line from the debate that accompanied the attempt to ban the Communist Party fifty-five years ago, “it assumes that people would in a free discussion of ideas favour totalitarianism to democracy”. Fortunately there is little evidence to support this assumption.
WHEN CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS “discovered” America, he thought he had found a new Garden of Eden. For centuries, the fecundity of the New World cast it as paradise on earth: it was the destination. Early accounts gush about the richness of its natural endowments, “an earthly, earthy obsession” as Kevin Rushby writes in his elegant book Paradise: A History of an Idea that Rules the World (Constable, 2006). By the nineteenth century, the Christian idea of paradise which had shaped early settlement of America and the New World was transformed into a secular paradise in which rights and freedoms were enshrined. As philosopher John Locke wrote: “In the beginning all was America.”
Of course, the idea of America is more tarnished these days, even Americans are sceptical (a third, according to a Scripps Howard/University of Ohio poll for instance, believe that their government helped engineer the September 11, 2001 attacks to provide an excuse to invade Iraq). The transformation of a secular paradise to a consumer paradise in the twentieth century may have driven a hundred years of economic prosperity, but the emptiness at the heart of a life of acquisition has left its own legacy, the fruits of which are now being harvested.
Some of the Islamist opposition to the West is a reaction against what Kevin Rushby describes as “the godless faith of consumerism” rather than competing Abrahamic religions: “In an age when religious hope is resurgent and faith in scientific knowledge at a low, it is certainly time to question our headlong rush toward that mythical, and unreachable, destination.”
The essays in this collection explore the enduring, yet elusive and troubled, pursuit of paradise at a time when it has been reduced to little more than an advertising slogan designed to sell an escape from the grim reality which too often surrounds us.
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