Australians protest efforts to enlist them in antiterror fight

Some citizens are marking the government's new terror-response kits 'return to sender.'

In post offices around this country, a quiet revolt has begun, its emblem a fridge magnet.

At issue is a government campaign to promote public vigilance against terrorism.

Last week, Australia spent $15 million (Australian: US almost $9 million) distributing antiterror kits to 8 million households. The packages include a letter from Prime Minister John Howard advising people to call the National Security Hotline - listed on the enclosed magnet - if something seems out of place or "doesn't add up." The accompanying 20-page booklet offers tips on first aid, how to react in a crisis, and how to spot and report possible signs of terrorist activity, such as "unusual purchases of large quantities of fertilizer, chemicals or explosives" and "suspicious accommodation needs."

But instead of rousing Australians to watchfulness, the kits have riled thousands, who are marking them "return to sender."

Kay Mckew, the postmistress at Berrima, a small country town in New South Wales, says many customers are enclosing "No War" protest notes in their packages as they send them back.

One difficulty in getting people to accept the package is the government's cooperation in preparations for war in Iraq. Opinion polls show that 76 to 80 percent of Australians oppose a strike on Iraq without United Nations backing. Australia has sent troops and approved fighter jet deployments to join US and British forces in the Gulf preparing for a possible war, but has yet to publicly commit to joining any military action.

"We are affronted that by sending 2,000 Australian troops to fight a war with Iraq, we are greatly increasing terrorism threats in our own region - and we are being told to fight it with a fridge magnet," says Bob Brown, the charismatic leader of the Greens.

Critics have described the booklet - called "Let's look out for Australia," as fearmongering and a waste of tax payer money.

"It is highly divisive to the community to suggest that we must look at other people suspiciously - it is very un-Australian to be asked to spy on other Australians," says Ian Bickerton, associate professor of history at the University of New South Wales, who refers to the current initiative as being worse than McCarthyism in the United States.

"I will not be co-opted in the government's 'wedge politics' - which are aimed at creating fear and divisions in society," Bickerton adds.

An official Emergency Australia website suggests items for a do-it-yourself terrorism-survival kit. Some of the tools recommended for people confined to their homes by a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack - such as flashlights, radios, pet food, and playing cards - have obvious uses.

But latex gloves? A hat? Overalls?

Some psychologists have asserted that instead of informing and reassuring the public, the package is making people more anxious.

Australia's attorney general, Daryl Williams, rejects this view. "There may be different reactions from a few people in the community, but on the whole, it is designed to achieve an objective of raising the level of vigilance, but not raising anxiety," he says. He added that that grass-roots movement to return the kits is "irresponsible" and should be ignored.

Senator Brown says money spent on the anti-terrorism package would have been better spent on public infrastructure and combating terrorism in Australia's own backyard of South East Asia, not a war with Iraq.

But Australia's chief medical officer, Prof. Richard Smallwood, says that the first-aid advice in the kits is good because it covers such material as dressing wounds and treating burn victims - knowledge that could have helped victims of the Bali nightclub bombing, for example.

No one has died in a terrorist attack on Australian soil for more than 20 years. If that were to change, then the current climate of skepticism might evaporate. But for now, concern about the threat to civil liberties, not the threat of terrorism, appears to prevail.

In the aftermath of October's Bali nightclub bombings - which killed 88 vacationing Australians - police raided the home of Indonesian-born Australian residents allegedly linked to the group accused of planning the bombings, Jemaah Islamiyah. But instead of praise, police were accused of heavy- handed tactics.

Human rights groups have accused the government of spreading not an antiterrorist dragnet, but anti-Muslim hysteria.

Some Australians say the terrorism kit simply reflects the security agencies' inability to thwart terrorism.

Says Jan Forrester, a Sydney-based media consultant, "If the intelligence agencies are not being able to spot the flashpoints, I'm not about to waste my time monitoring how much fertilizer farmers are buying."

Mr. Forrester's antiterrorism kit is on its way back to Prime Minister Howard.

"Look, the government is not being serious with this bag of Easter goodies," he says. " So why should we be?"

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