I’m Uncomfortable With That

Applauding David Hicks

The thing I found most disturbing this week was the the report that David Hicks received a standing applause from his audience at the Sydney Writers Festival.If there ever was a report that lowered my estimation of the people who go to the Sydney Writers Festival, this might have been it.

David Hicks is a divisive figure, and I can understand full well that his incarceration was so monstrously unreasonable by any legal definition, and yet I don’t understand how that translates into an standing applause. I’ve had people explain to me that it is the deep anti-American feelings being expressed by people of conscience – but I struggle to understand why that conscience isn’t equally for those who passed in the 9/11 attacks. And if they did feel it, then maybe the enthusiasm for the cause that once was David Hicks might be tempered a little.

I found I was not alone in my misgivings.

For those who have an interest in the facts rather than a self-serving rewrite of history, a quick reprise of Hicks’s past is in order.

His latter day effort to portray himself as some sort of harmless, hapless dilettante is belied by letters written in his own hand. In these missives he talks of undergoing weapons training that included “anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets, rapid-fire heavy and light machineguns, pistols, AK47s, mines and explosives”. His words, not mine.
Hicks’s hamfisted dishonesty is on full display when his autobiography presents a bowdlerised version of a foray to the front line between India and Pakistan. Hicks travelled to Kashmir courtesy of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. In his book, he declares: “We did not fire upon Indian soldiers or any other people. We only participated in the symbolic exchange of fire.”

But in a letter written in August 2000, Hicks described his Kashmiri experience in more robust terms. “I got to fire hundreds of bullets,” he crowed. “Most Muslim countries impose hanging for civilians arming themselves for conflict. There are not many countries in the world where a tourist, according to his visa, can go to stay with the army and shoot across the border at its enemy, legally.”

During his festival appearance at the weekend, Hicks claimed the first time he ever heard the name al-Qaeda was “from the lips of an interrogator in Guantanamo Bay”. But once again, he is busted by those pesky notes he penned to his family.

In a May 2001 missive he wrote: ”By the way I have met Osama bin Laden 20 times now, lovely brother, everything for the cause of Islam. The only reason the West calls him the most wanted Muslim is because he’s got the money to take action.”

And of course, Hicks’s epistolary boastfulness comports with the view held by the Australian intelligence community. During Senate estimates hearings in May 2002, the former ASIO director Dennis Richardson said that “certainly Mr Hicks has received extensive al-Qaeda training”.

A day after, Lapkin’s piece was countered by Mary Kostakidis.

In the Herald yesterday, Ted Lapkin from the Institute of Public Affairs, persisted with the Howard government’s demonisation of Hicks with no regard for history, facts or the rule of law.

He mentioned Hicks’s letters, which were written more than 10 years ago. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group with whom he travelled to Kashmir, was years away from being declared a terrorist organisation. It was supported by the Pakistani military, which provided standard military training, using facilities once used to train the mujahideen (whom the West supported). It also was responsible for dealing with the needs of refugees from the conflict with India, running orphanages and schools.

The plight of the Kashmiri people in that conflict was such that a NATO representative called for the West to help in whatever way we could. You and I may not respond to that call but Hicks naively did, embarking on a course of events with which he was completely unequipped to deal.

Lapkin and others also quote selectively from Hicks’s letters. In them Hicks refers to the Taliban as bloodthirsty idiots. There is no reference to terrorist training or any training aimed at hurting civilians. There is not one mention of al-Qaeda. Hicks was present in a crowd listening to Osama bin Laden speak, but he does not understand Arabic and took his information from the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Its editorial line was that bin Laden had become a scapegoat – he was seen as a hero.

He continues to be seen as a hero by many millions around the world, but not by Hicks.

I was a news junky so I remember things very well. Mr. Lapkin has the facts right and it is Mary Kostakidis who is deliberately twisting them. He is not selectively quoting things out of context; they are exactly as were reported at the time from the media including SBS for which Mary Kostakidis used to read the news. It is Ms Kostakidis who is retroactively trying to rewrite the reportage and how it was presented, and more importantly what it meant; which is to say, if anybody is indulging in some Orwellian history-doctoring, it is Ms. Kostakidis with her insidious little opinion piece.

This much we know: David Hicks saw the 9/11 attacks on TV as they happened, and instead of going to work like every other person the next day, he chose to go to Afghanistan. And we can give his motives a thousand excuses and characterise it in any which way, but I remember 9/11 and the next day following. Anybody who thought they had to go to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban, had what was coming to them.

Yes, Camp X-Ray at G’itmo was a terrifying legal construct and yes, we all felt it was horrible how the Howard Government left David Hicks out there to rot; but in the end when we look at the very root cause of how he got there in the first place, you have to accept he put himself – foolishly, as he now admits (but what other way can you characterise it?) – right into the maelstrom to be picked up and tossed anywhere. Almost all the sensible people of the world went about doing their every day business. The point about David Hicks is that even if he weren’t guilty of the terrorist charges that he pleaded guilty to, he is still a scum bucket for going there in the first place.

I do think David Hicks had an unfairly long and hard time in Guantanamo Bay, but had he watched ‘A Few Good Men’ and watched ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ before going off to fight against the US Marines, he might have had a better idea of who he was squaring up against. And if indeed he watched the Twin Towers come down, and had any amount of imagination he couldn’t have expected the US Marines to be merciful upon their enemies. Nothing in his ordeal could be described as surprising. He signed up for it, it was all in the brochure, so to speak.

I know it seems unfair to kick him around even today, but honestly, he’s the one who wrote the book, and is giving talks at the Sydney Writers Festival and lying about how he got there. But that is all one thing to the side. What I can’t abide is the crowd who accept his claptrap and stand up and applaud. I know there’s a healthy vein of anti-American sentiment in the Australian cultural set, but this is idiotic.


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