Domestic Terror: Police constables and detectives outside the Wellington Trades Hall, 27 March 1984. After 33 years of vilification directed at trade unionists, at least one of their enemies finally made the leap from words to deeds, and an innocent caretaker, Ernie Abbott, lost his life.
“IF ANYONE BELIEVES there is absolutely no risk of a form of domestic terrorism here then they're actually deluded.” So says John Key, our Prime Minister, and of course he’s right. New Zealand has already been the victim of at least one fatal domestic terrorist bombing. The carefully planned and professionally executed attack resulted in the death of an elderly Wellingtonian. Sadly, the perpetrator (or perpetrators) of this terrorist outrage have yet to be brought to justice.
The Wellington Trades Hall Bombing of 27 March 1984 had only one victim, the building’s caretaker, Ernie Abbott. He was killed by three sticks of gelignite concealed in a suitcase and triggered by a movement-sensitive mercury switch. It is generally conceded in trade union circles that the bomb’s intended target was not the unfortunate caretaker but the impending meeting of the Wellington Trades Council Executive. Ernie Abbott (as is so often the case with terrorist attacks) was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What differentiates the Wellington Trades Hall Bombing from more recent acts of terrorism around the world is that the bomber’s motives were ideological – not religious.
A deep hatred (and that is not too strong a word) for organised labour lies at the very core of the National Party’s ideology. Unions are despised and feared by National Party members because their unabashed collectivism challenges directly the individualist ideal so vital to the conservative’s self-image. It took the first National Government just fourteen months to engineer a run-of-the-mill dispute between the Waterside Workers’ Union and the ship-owners into a brutal and divisive industrial confrontation lasting five months, during which nearly all of the accepted notions of democracy and civil liberty were cast aside.
And if you think such animosity is a thing of the past, then just look at the recently re-elected National Government’s legislative agenda. At the very top you will find the long-delayed “reforms” of the Employment Relations Act. By the time Michael Woodhouse finishes the job begun by his predecessor, Simon Bridges, the already fragile capacity of trade unions to service their members will be reduced still further.
It is precisely within such officially-sanctioned (and all-too-often officially created) climates of fear, loathing, denigration and discrimination that domestic terrorism grows and acquires strength. In the 33 years that separated the 1951 Waterfront Dispute from the Wellington Trades Hall Bombing, at least one right-wing extremist was impelled beyond the political conviction that trade unions had no right to exist, to the homicidal belief that trade unionists – or, at least, their “misleaders” – had no right to live.
Cold Case: In spite of intensive enquiries, the identity of the Wellington Trades Hall Bombers has never been discovered. The file remains open.
Which is why the best defence against domestic terrorism is always political and religious tolerance and officially reiterated respect for the rights and liberties of the citizen. The very worst thing that any government can do to restrict the growth of terrorism is to either openly declare, or slyly imply, to a majority of the population that it is under threat from a dangerous and alien minority: the proverbial “enemy within”.
The designation of any minority population – the New Zealand Muslim community, for example – as a potential “breeding ground” for terrorists, immediately sets up a pernicious and potentially deadly dynamic.
Members of the majority culture may feel encouraged to take “action” against the potential “terrorists”. This has already happened in Australia where, following the massive police “anti-terrorist” raids of Muslim addresses in New South Wales and Queensland, Muslim women and girls have been verbally abused and physically attacked for wearing traditional attire.
In response to such persecution, the citizens living in these targeted communities may feel obligated to defend themselves against the majority culture. In such fraught circumstances, extremists of all kinds – local and foreign – will inevitably receive a more sympathetic hearing.
Finally, if Government’s response to the threat of terrorism is to increase dramatically the surveillance and interrogative powers of the State, then the officials so empowered, protected from both media scrutiny and judicial sanction, may themselves begin to behave in ways indistinguishable from the terrorists they are supposed to be protecting it from.
Holding people in solitary confinement for days or weeks without access to family or friends. Subjecting detainees to traumatic forms of interrogation. Is this not, itself, a form of terrorism?
State-Sponsored Terrorism: On 10 July 1985 French agents blew a hole in The Rainbow Warrior, killing Greenpeace's Portuguese photographer, Fernando Pereira.
Let’s not forget, New Zealand’s other fatal bombing, of the Rainbow Warrior, was perpetrated by state terrorists.
This essay was originally published by The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 October 2014.