Control orders on 14-year-olds an ethical dilemma

As the so-called war on terror escalates in the wake of the bombings in France, Attorney-General George Brandis wants to give police the power to place control orders on suspects as young as 14.

Control orders allow active monitoring, 1984-style.

Can they prevent acts of violence? The evidence suggests they can. As well as enabling the collection of evidence, control orders disrupt plans.

But the proposed law, part of a suite of anti-terror measures being investigated by a parliamentary committee, creates an ethical dilemma – especially at a time when the values of the West are under threat. In Western society it isn't normally a crime to think something. How can it be right to severely limit the freedom of someone as young as 14, just because they *might* later commit a crime?

It'll inevitably mean profiling. Islam doesn't have a monopoly on violence, but that's where the police will look. They don't have the resources to look everywhere.

Control orders are expensive. They require rotating shifts, 24/7. Counter-radicalisation programs are far cheaper and they seem to work for young people, if not for adults whose minds are more set.

Fourteen year olds can and do take part in extreme violence. Some suicide bombers are even younger. But they are invariably egged on by adults.

This is not an argument that sees children and young people as innocents as that would deprive them of agency; able to make their own choices.

But we have a extra special responsibility to them and that responsibility requires a commitment to understand them.

Adults can easily forget what it's like to be a teenager. And it's adults who draft laws.

Every culture is predicated on the expression of some passions and beliefs, the exploitation and denial of others. Cultures use visible and invisible rules to neutralise reckless and dangerous pursuits in favour of mature ones.

Advances in neuroscience are helping us get kids. In search of personal heroes and heroines who can assist them in constructing the self – young people can be steered towards an alternative course, realigned with the expectations of their community. They may be less likely to do so if living with the threat of punitive control orders for uncommitted crimes.

We know that their ego is under construction. Their identities are somewhat fractured at the same time as recognise and articulate a world they know to be broken. In seeking to be integrated they seek out and readily identify with characters who they think are consistent, have integrity or commonly offer a way they see as restoring justice. Because of a deep ideological hunger and often a sense of urgency about the meaning of life, adolescents are especially capable of making commitments, even self sacrifice, that challenge the norm.

A family counselor and friend of mine, now in his 50s, is candid about the heroes in his adolescence: "Ned Kelly and before him, Ben Hall, a bush ranger who felt poorly treated by the judiciary and sought to correct things."

"Look at the kids who went to Anzac. They lied about their age because they wanted to be part of something bigger and do something heroic. We forget that; that pull on them as lost souls. The call to join IS; what's the attraction? Participating in something bigger, wanting to make decisions for themselves."

The ACT government and local Muslim community are against the extension of control orders, as a potential breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Their concerns echo those of the national Human Rights Commission; using laws to control the behaviour of a young person when they have committed no crime could be counter-productive.

Lowering the control order age to just 14 risks adding to negative images of young people especially those of Muslim faith who may need stronger support services and mentoring relationships.

This is a vexed issue. Whoever is in government, Labor and the Coalition know they would be crucified if a bomb was to go off here that led to multiple deaths. Recent attacks reiterate that Western governments are not making up the jihadist terror threat.

But just because governments are right in their fight, doesn't mean they are right about everything to do with it.

First published in The Canberra Times, 12 December 2015

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