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
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.
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
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
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
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.