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Retreating into certainty

Written on 29 October 2002

Times are troubled. As happens in such times, we look not for answers to the troubles, but for ways to feel less troubled.

Times are also uncertain, but we -- and I -- can feel less troubled by convincing ourselves that we -- I -- really know precisely what's going on. If I know what's going on, if I know why people are doing odd things (blowing up night clubs, knocking down skyscrapers), then I may be able determine ways to persuade them to stop.

And if I am certain I know these things, then naturally I will be disappointed that others, especially those who actually wield some power, do not share my certainties. Sometimes, rather than being disappointed I may infuriated by that failure, especially if it takes the form of the powerful not merely failing to share my certainties, but actually holding their own, contrary, certainties.

We see certainties expressed, with a remarkable lack of depth or understanding, in the letters pages of newspapers. Someone from Lane Cove writes in The Australian of 18 October 2002 that 'Terrorists are made -- they are not born', which seems an uncontroversial position, but derives from this that Australia's detention of asylum seekers is doing that making. Senator Bob Brown on the same page denies having done what he clearly did do a couple of days earlier: link the Bali bombing with the Government's policy on Iraq.

Nor is it letters pages alone. The position on Iraq of such church leaders as Archbishop Carnley is one-dimensional in a way that ought to be thought of as extraordinary ... but can't because one-dimensionality is the norm. His statements suggest that an extensive theological education does not always endow a person with an ability to see both sides of an argument.

Meanwhile, the position of the Australian Government has, at times, also hinted at an unwarranted certainty in its support of United States policy with regard to Iraq. Fortunately the weight of government, of actually having the power to take action and bear some small proportion of the responsibility for the consequences, usually exercises a moderating influence. Its certainty seems to be more likely a matter of appearance than attitude.

Foreign Minister Downer may have had his tongue tucked angrily in cheek when inviting Carnley to identify the Bali bombers to the government. Carnley's certainty as to the bombers' motivations, Downer logically argued, suggests that he must know their identity. One suspects that Downer's irritation is not that Carnley differs, but that the issue is being painted by Carnley as black and white, with all arguments pointing one way. In other words, as a matter of certainty.

The silly thing about all this is that there is no certainty in human affairs. Instead we live amongst mishmashes of probabilities, uncountable shades of grey, contradictory indicators, muddy motives, a chaotic web of uncertainties.

Many political positions deny this. On Iraq an early intervention will likely have consequences, but then a failure to intervene may have even worse consequences. Or it may not. And that's the point. It isn't a matter of certainty, it's a matter for a judgement call.

The recent letter from former Prime Ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke urged dovishness on the question of Iraq. All three (along with Mr Keating) declined to act on East Timor's occupation by Indonesia, as indeed did the present Prime Minister until the post-independence-referendum massacres. A former ASIS officer writes (in the same issue of The Australian) that the United States suggested Mr Howard place a peace-keeping force before the referendum. That, also, was a judgement call. Perhaps Mr Howard should have acceded to that suggestion, at an even greater risk to good Australian-Indonesian relations. Perhaps. But any criticism of him for failing to do so needs to be moderated by the recognition of the counter-argument.

Likewise, criticism of the failure of the government to issue a travel warning to Bali. The intelligence officers involved, and their government masters, have to weigh up the costs of such a warning against the benefits. The sole benefit would, at best, have been that fewer Australians may have died. But how many fewer? How many would have cancelled their holidays? Very few, I would suggest. The period since 11 September 2001 has seen many travel alerts and terrorist warnings (mostly, it must be said, by the US Government) without the things about which people have been alerted and warned actually occurring. Wolf having already been cried more than a dozen times, would it not be reasonable to decline to declare warnings of yet another wolf, unless one has moderately strong evidence? Especially during a time in which urgent repairs to Australia's relationship with Indonesia were being undertaken. Even now, post-Bali, that nation is expressing concern about the damage to its economy from such warnings.

Certainty is a characteristic of the intolerant and the terrorist. Only if you are certain that Paradise awaits would you go to your certain death, whether at the controls of a 767 or with a C4 waist-coat. Regular soldiers can manage with less certainty because their deaths are less certain.

Politics, sadly, demands a display of certainty. Conventional political wisdom makes it impossible, but I for one would love to hear George W Bush's justification of an Iraq invasion couched in terms of pros and cons, benefits and costs, and delivered with a humble appreciation that tragedy may well ensue, that his action may make things worse, but that it his cautious judgement that an invasion would be less bad than the likely alternative.

And I would, even more, love to hear his and Mr Howard's critics equally admit that their positions are also uncertain, merely judgements that could also be wrong and, if implemented, could kill.

© 2002 - Stephen Dawson