Movie warns we will lose our basic civil liberties if we yield to paranoia

RICHARD SWAINSON
Last updated 13:05 11/10/2011

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OPINION: Regular readers of this column will be well aware that I love movies. The week before last, I even prioritised going to a film over the Rugby World Cup and the Hamilton Fringe Festival. Five or six of us gathered on the comfortable if well-worn chairs at Void, the all-ages gig at the north end of Victoria St, for a screening of Operation 8.

The paucity of the turnout was in inverse proportion to the film's importance. Political documentaries are always an acquired ideological taste, but Operation 8 embraces a wider range of perspectives on the 2007 terrorist raids than you might think judging by the poster and publicity alone.

While plenty of screen time is devoted to the justified complaints of the Tuhoe people, it isn't just the Tama Iti show. The agenda goes well beyond historical injustice and Maori sovereignty to embrace issues of human rights abuses, police paranoia and the fundamental threat posed to political protest.

Any documentary whose talking head subjects range from John Minto to Ross Meurant is casting its interview net very wide.

The fact that lawyers, academics, and analysts speak as vociferously against the raids as the disparate array of activists and otherwise innocent bystanders who fell victim to them makes a powerful statement against the state's blundering stupidity.

I cannot say I was convinced by arguments contained within Operation 8 that the police actions were part of a consciously conceived and systematic plan to close down leftist dissent in New Zealand. The idea that the raids were an organised action designed to make examples of the few, thereby warning the many, comes close to a conspiracy theory.

However, the police were wholly deluded in identifying a threat: that there were as many terrorists running around the Ureweras as there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If police logic had all the cogency of former United States president George W Bush's, their tactics were equally subtle, bullying the women and young children of Ruatoki as though they were living out a Hollywood action film fantasy.

The raids demonstrated that it isn't just me who loves the movies. When burly officers of the law come thundering into the houses of weedy peaceniks at the break of dawn, smashing down unlocked doors for crude dramatic effect that they could have just opened, it's clear their training regime has embraced the collected works of Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What a shame that police taste wasn't more diverse. If they had just watched All the President's Men, they could have been forewarned about the pitfalls of illegal surveillance, particularly as it applies to the ruling regime's political adversaries.

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If they had a working knowledge of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they could perhaps have discerned that the New Zealand terrorists' grand plan to kill Bush by catapulting a cow onto his head was, in fact, a satirical joke and not something to put before a gullible judge, albeit selectively.

If they had been educated by Vincent Ward's Rain of the Children, they could have put their actions into a historical context, appreciating the consistency between 19th and 20th-century Crown oppression of Tuhoe and their present day, gun-totting antics in Ruatoki.

Incredibly, the script of the Ward movie was contained in one of the police dossiers as evidence against a terrorist suspect. It was unclear whether this person's crime was knowing the history of her own people or just finding employment in the indigenous film industry. The police might not yet be spying on the history and Maori studies departments of our universities or on the set of The Hobbit, but just as soon as the new surveillance rules allow, they will no doubt have the cameras in place, dutifully recording every off-hand comment or drunken joke as though they were Osama bin Laden's dying words.

You don't have to buy into the philosophies of any of various fringe groups caught up in the raids to be outraged by the revelations of Operation 8. You don't even have to be on the Left. What's at issue is whether we succumb to the poisonous paranoia that has swept the Western world post-9/11 or hold on to the basic civil liberties of democracy.

- Richard Swainson runs independent Hamilton DVD rental store Auteur House.

- Waikato Times

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