Australians were shocked by the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which killed 10 Australians among the nearly 3,000 victims. However, it wasn’t until the Bali bombings a year later, which claimed 88 Australian lives, that the nation really realized its vulnerability to terrorism.
Like the Kennedy assassination – or in Australia’s case, the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government – many can remember exactly what they were doing when they first heard the news. In my case, my wife and I were watching TV in our flat in Tokyo when an American friend from New York state phoned with the shocking news.
We quickly switched channels to BBC World and then also to CNN, while Japanese stations were also quick to run blanket coverage of the attacks. It seemed surreal, perhaps a scene from a Hollywood disaster movie. But we knew that thousands of innocent lives had indeed been lost.
Then Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington on the day of the attacks, and he quickly pledged support for the United States in its ‘war on terror.’ Australian security agencies were bolstered and a telephone hotline established encouraging citizens to report any suspicious behaviour.
‘Be alert, not alarmed’ was the theme of the Howard government’s ‘Let’s Look Out for Australia’ public awareness campaign in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
Launching the $15 million campaign, Howard was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper as saying: ‘I don't want Australians to become frightened, I don't want Australians to stop living their ordinary lives…If that happens then the terrorists win.’
Four terrorist plots have been foiled in the decade since 2001 involving largely Australian citizens, while no successful attack has occurred in the country – a fact which Howard recently credited to ‘the efforts of our intelligence and security apparatus.’
‘We have to remain vigilant. We have to put up with the inconveniences. But it’s worth it because they haven't won, and the way of life we treasure is still intact,’ he said.
Anthony Fensom is The Diplomat’s Australia correspondent.
Photo: Flickr / tedeytan