The Ethics Of… Taking Citizenship from Terrorists

For anyone with even the most basic exposure to the media in Australia, as well as a fair few other nations, it’s been nearly impossible to miss this story; young people from developed western nations have been flying overseas to fight for ISIS, possibly the most brutal terrorist organisation active in the world today. This desertion of the country they are citizens of, to join a group that it not only an enemy of the state but also renowned for its barbarism (beheadings, mass executions, child soldiers, sexual violence and slavery are standard practice for ISIS), is the sort of thing the mass media lives for and the subsequent coverage has been nothing short of gleeful.

Riding this wave of media hysteria, and the public outrage it has naturally created, Australian Federal Government has decided to take action against any citizen of ours who joins a terrorist organisation. Their solution to these traitorous youth, who have turned their backs on everything western civilisation stands for? Strip them of their Australian citizenship! If these hooligans and terrorists want so badly to be part of Islamic State then let them! Cut them loose and let them take their chances out there in the battlegrounds of Iraq and Syria, with no chance of bringing their violence and despicable ideals back home once they realise what a mistake they have made. Poetic justice at its finest! What could be a more fitting end for a would-be terrorist than to be stuck with the group they support, when they inevitably crumble under the full weight of international opposition?

And, on the surface, stripping citizenship from supporters of this terrible group does seem to make a lot of sense. It already build on well-established law that strips citizenship from anyone who goes over to an enemy nation during times of war, it pretty much guarantees and even best of all it saves us from having to go to the trouble of tracking down, arresting and then prosecuting these people for treason, a crime they clearly have committed as Australian citizens and which lands them in prison for life – all at the tax payers’ expense I might add. Isn’t it simpler, cheaper and just plain sensible to abandon them in the war zones they’ve chosen to stick themselves in? What is the point in maintaining their citizenship when the best it can do them is a life sentence in jail? After all, you’d think death in glorious battle is what these rebels would have wanted.

Given all these benefits, not to mention the blinding obviousness of the solution, it might then come as a bit of a surprise that the government’s proposal is meeting a LOT of opposition.

But then again, what doesn’t.

But as we’ve discussed before, it is a standing point of ethics that the burden of proof lays with the positive claim – which is to say you can’t just say ‘Prove I’m wrong’ and sit there like a smug git. If you want to propose a new idea or otherwise change the way things are done, it is up to you to prove your idea is better than the current state of thing, NOT for your critics to prove that your way is definitively worse. The idea that we should strip those who go to fight for terrorist groups of their citizenship is no exception to this. Hell, given how blindingly obvious the solution is this oughta be easy, right?

The first objection to this plan is a pretty solid point: anyone leaving a developed nation to fight for a murderous terrorist force is clearly not in their right mind. According to the government, of the Australians recruited in ISIS ranks the average age is 23, 90% male. Their backgrounds are diverse, though they all obviously identify as Muslim (whether they understand what that means is another question) and agree with ISIS’s political goals (again, as they understand them), though the personal motivations for each recruit are beyond our ability to discover (and likely theirs as well). For anyone with a decent understanding of history, the picture we’re painting here should be pretty familiar: young men discarding a society that doesn’t understand them, to go and fight for a cause that they consider righteous? That’s pretty much a word-for-word description for any Australian who went to war up to and including World War 2.

Who hasn’t fantasized about throwing off the shackles of society, traveling abroad and having grand adventures? Who hasn’t gone on a little mental power trip and thought about glorious battle for a righteous cause? Half out entertainment is based on that exact idea, allowing us to live these fantasies vicariously through film, books, video games or (for those willing to go that extra step) LARPing and other virtual re-enactment. In a sense, the young people flying off to fight for ISIS are simply continuing this age old pattern, and while their choice of faction is extremely poor, the motivation for fighting is at least understandable.

Young people have been doing stupid shit for as long as there have been young people. Throw in religious fervour, the alienation from politicians using their community to win bigotry points, and the perception that western nations like Australia have been systematically out to get Muslims since 9/11, and frankly I’m just surprised we haven’t had more defections like this. Given this context, not to mention the insidious influence of the ISIS recruiters that groom each of their converts online, we can’t really consider young people who defect full responsible for their actions? The case of Jake Bilardi illustrates this particularly well. This wild-eyed, pale, 18 year old from Melbourne who described his upbringing in Australia “comfortable”, nonetheless took off to Syria, joined ISIS and then blew himself up in a suicide bombing earlier this year. Consider all the circumstances here and this just comes off as a standard teenage ‘glorious suicide’ taken to extreme lengths. These are not the actions of rational, well informed people and as such they are more deserving of sympathy and treatment than punishment.

“I’ve made a huuuuuuuge mistake”

And yeah that may all be true, but it’s also fairly irrelevant. Intervention in the cases is obviously preferable – if we can avoid an Australian citizen fleeing to fight for our enemies then yeah, that’s obviously the best thing to do here! But remember that, even though Muslims have frequently been a convenient political scapegoat for some of our less pleasant politicians, they are hardly persecuted in Australia, or even discriminated against in any significant way. Yes there are many groups, some of them powerful, that vilify Muslims, but at the same time there is no shortage of government and non-government organisations designed specifically to support Muslim communities, celebrate their culture, cater for their specific needs and promote integration into Australia. Hardly a basis to take up arms against us, all things considered.

Moreover we need to keep a sense of proportion here; this is not some massive exodus of disaffected youth, rejecting Australia and joining out enemies. To date only 60 Australian citizens have joined ISIS, which tends to indicate that these defections are less the result of cultural or social pressures, and more a case of a few nutters who have gotten through the net of social services, councilling and welfare, jumped ship and gone off on some arse-backwards spirit journey in a war zone. These sort of extreme exceptions will always exist because they are so exceptional – of all the things a disturbed teen might do to rebel against society, voluntarily leaving the country and joining a terrorist group is not exactly in the top 10. Sure they’re almost certainly not making rational decision and will almost certainly come to regret their actions, but does that really mean Australia should be responsible for tracking them down, capturing them and treating them? Maybe if they turned themselves in we’d have a different situation, but in the meantime it is far simpler, cheaper and easier to simply cut ties and leave them to their own devices.

Sure it’s sad that these few, stupid young folk have gotten themselves in over their heads, but is it sad enough to risk the lives of Defence personnel and spend a few hundred thousand dollars to get them the help they need?


The next major objection is the one causing most of the problems for the government’s proposal – basically that’s it’s illegal. Quite apart from the constitutional clusterfuck this proposal would cause (described as a “new form of conditional citizenship” by constitutional law expert George Williams), stripping sole Australian nationals (ie. those who don’t have duel nationality) of their citizenship directly contravenes the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights by making them stateless people.

This is a bigger deal than it sounds. A stateless person is essentially screwed for life because they cannot ever rejoin society, because gaining nationality required already being a member of an existing, recognised nation (and ISIS sure as hell doesn’t count). Without a nationality you can’t do squat. You can’t rent or buy a house, so you’re homeless. You can’t borrow money, open a bank account or get a job, so you’re broke. You can’t get a license, an ID card or any form of identification, so for all intents and purposes you don’t actually exist. And as I mentioned before, you can never improve this situation, because to do so you would already have to have a nationality – which you no longer have. You are completely and utterly screwed.

By stripping our 60 defectors of their citizenship, Australia not only breaches our commitment to the Declaration of Human Rights, we also violate the concept of natural justice itself; specifically the idea that a person accused of a crime should be able to confront their accuser in a court of law, rather than being summarily condemned without their side of the story heard. This is serious shit – literally the only thing between modern civilization and the government going all Nazi on us and arresting and imprisoning people without trial, or even the need for trial. Revoking citizenship for these defectors without giving them the chance for trial, surely we are setting a very dangerous precedent here?

No, they’d never do anything like that

Well, not really, no. While the principle of natural justice is extremely important, there is plenty of precedent for convicting and sentencing someone without them actually showing up to the trial – specifically when the accused jumps ship and refuses to turn up to court. Such criminals can be tried in absentia and this is accepted as fine because, while the accused didn’t actually defend themselves, they were given the chance to do so. No one is refusing our 60 defectors the chance to face a courtroom and defend their actions. They chose to abandon Australia for a known enemy of the state despite clearly knowing this would be a crime, yet they chose to anyway. Revoking their citizenship by legislation might be a bit iffy, but even if it doesn’t meet the letter of natural justice it certainly captures the spirit of the law.

And sure, the proposal does indeed violate the UN Charter and cause a lovely constitutional mess, but so what? Law and ethics are not the same thing; it is extremely easy to think of situations where the ethically justified course of action may break a law, even a law as significant as the Declaration of Human Rights. Hell we break it all the time; every time be confine someone to jail we infringe on half a dozen of their Human Rights, but we recognise this as ethically justifiable because of the greater good it serves. Given that depriving these mere 60 Australians of their Right to Citizenship might prevent putting other Australians at risk, not to mention save us the cost of prosecuting them, surely we can justify it in this case also?

But there is one more aspect of this statelessness to consider, and it’s one that has been largely ignored in the government’s proposal so far: where will our newly stateless people go, exactly? Let’s be generous here and imagine that ISIS does what no other terrorist group manages to do, and actually carves out and holds an Islamic State in Syria and/or Iraq – where does that leave our 60 Australian defectors? Living as part of the regime in this new terror-state, either enforcing the regime’s new bloody rule on the civilians stuck in ISIS territory, or else filling a shallow grave somewhere after the regime turns on them.

Tyrants not exactly being known for their level-headedness and loyalty

In the FAR more likely scenario that ISIS is scattered to the winds, having even managed to alienate Al friggin’ Qaeda and turn the entire international community against them, what happens to our Australian warriors then? Best case scenario, they get killed. But guerrilla warfare tends to be a tad more slippery than that – all the combatants need to do it drop their guns and flag and suddenly they’re just another person caught in the conflict. Assuming they manage to survive, now we have an extremely dangerous, undocumented, brainwashed insurgent loose in the middle east. Sure that’s basically a Monday for the poor buggers stuck in that region, but on the other hand, aren’t these the very last civilians that should be stuck with these loons? Loons which we have washed our hands of and cut loose in their back yard? All because we didn’t want to foot the bill of collecting 60 troublesome citizens? Not exactly fair or just when you come to think of it.

This is a solid criticism and one that the government absolutely needs to address for this proposal to fly (especially given we were part of the invasion that destabilised the region in the first place). But you know what? Even this concern pales in comparison to the major problem with this proposal: there is no definition of a ‘terrorist organisation’.

Originally the Australian government wanted to ‘scrap citizenship automatically for both those accused of supporting terrorism in Australia and those believed to be fighting abroad’, but has since altered the proposal to just affect those who fight with “a listed terrorist organisation overseas“, are “convicted of a specific terrorism related offence” or engage in “specified terrorist related conduct”. You know what terrifies me about any or all of those statements? They could refer to just about anything.

What the hell is ‘terrorist related conduct’? What does a ‘terrorist organisation’ have to do specifically to get listed? Does the person have to be convicted of a ‘terrorism related offence’ in an Australian court, or will any court do? This might all seem like semantics here, but think about how easily you could stretch those terms if you really really wanted to. Is there anything you couldn’t fit in there if you wanted to and there was no one who could stop you from doing so?

This is not to say that ISIS is anything other than a terrorist group, or that their crimes should be considered anything other than horrific and unacceptable, but without a clear definition of what ‘terrorism’ and a ‘terrorist’ is (and as I’ve pointed out before, that isn’t easy) what’s to prevent a government from deciding that, after a persuasive meeting with the Japanese ambassador, Sea Shepherd qualifies as a terrorist organisation? Climate change protestors who picket coal power plants or coal seam gas projects are threatening the energy security of the nation – sound like a good addition to the ‘terrorist related conduct’ list. What’s that? The Burmese military junta convicted you of ‘terrorism’ for providing basic education to its citizens? Well sunshine, with a little bit of tweaking we can probably get that to qualify as ‘convicted of a specific terrorism related offence’! With the threat of having your freaking citizenship revoked, I dare say you lot might want to fall into line and stop bothering the government, mmmkay?

Nah, that could never happen.

As much as I hate this current government (and I do) I am not really suggesting that they are proposing this law as a way of suppressing society. In fact I suspect they are proposing this law for exactly the reasons they stated: to keep Australia safe from those who would harm it, both physically and ideologically. But giving our government the power to strip us of our citizenship – the fundamental right to live, work and vote in the state – is an EXTREMELY dangerous thing to do. Even if that power was well defined and controlled, we are effectively handing the government the only key to your house and hoping that they’ll let us in whenever we want to. They might, hell they probably will, but they don’t have to and if they ever decide not to then there will be not a god damn thing you, I or anyone else can ever do about it.

The safety and security of the nation and its people should be the first duty of any government, and the debate over how much freedom we should give up to ensure that security is a complex and ongoing debate. But when one option for ensuring that security presents such a MASSIVE threat to the freedoms of every Australian citizen, all for the benefit of not having to bother tracking down and taking responsibility for a mere 60 dickheads, then the costs MASSIVELY outweigh the benefits offered to us. Throw in the chaos and destruction these abandoned citizens will likely wreak through an already war-torn region and the proposal cannot be justified on any level. Citizens should be tried for their crimes in a court of law; anything less than this is not good enough.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Taking Citizenship from Terrorists

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