Australian Prime Minister John Howard appears to have his head in the sand of Cronulla beach here where several thousand booze-fueled mates rampaged against “Lebs” and others of Middle Eastern descent in December. “I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country,” said the PM, many of whose young Muslim constituents begged to differ by retaliating for the beach attack, marauding through the city’s upscale, predominantly white suburbs beating random individuals and smashing windows in homes and cars.
Howard argues that Australia has had an enviable record of welcoming several million new citizens from all over the globe since World War II, which is true enough. But he is also the man who, during a decade in office, has repeatedly refused to apologize to the nation’s Aborigines for two centuries of brutality at the hands of Australia’s British settlers and their descendants. Like the Aborigines, hundreds of thousands of dark-skinned newcomers have remained second-class citizens–unwelcome at certain beaches, restaurants, night spots and in many jobs and neighborhoods in a nation of 20 million that, for all its open doors, remains 92 percent white. For Australia’s estimated 300,000 Muslims, discrimination has escalated since 9/11 and the Bali bombing of October 2002, in which eighty-eight of the 202 people killed were Australians.
Then came raids on November 8, a swoop by some 500 local and federal police and agents of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). The largest such operation in recent memory here, the nighttime strikes on twenty-three houses in the Sydney and Melbourne suburbs–launched after what officials said was a sixteen-month investigation–netted sixteen alleged Muslim terrorists and many more stout headlines. “I’m satisfied that we have disrupted what I would regard as the final stages of a large-scale terrorist attack, or the launch of a terrorist attack,” declared New South Wales police chief Ken Moroney.
Did the raids prevent a catastrophe? To date, Australian officials have released little information, much of it vague. They said they found weapons, as well as chemicals of the kind used in the London Underground bombings in July; that some of those in custody had received military-like training in rural parts of the country; that Abdul Benbrika, an Algerian-born cleric sometimes known as Abu Bakr, was the ringleader; that he, along with the others, has been charged with being a member of a terrorist organization, one that planned, in the words of prosecutor Richard Maidment, to kill “innocent men and women in Australia.” Just where, when and how, he and the police have yet to reveal.
Days before the raid Parliament, prodded by Howard, had passed amendments to existing anti-terrorism laws to make it easier to prosecute anyone planning a terrorist act: Suddenly, authorities were able to arrest suspected terrorists without having evidence of a specific threat. In pushing hard for the amendments, Howard maintained that the government did have hard intelligence that an attack was coming; the arrests, he then insisted, vindicated the stampede to get the tightened provisions on the books.