Hard News by Russell Brown

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Te Qaeda and the God Squad

The Dominion Post today covers yesterday's police raids in part by harking back 30 years, to the Full Gospel Mission -- better known as the "God Squad" -- the millenarian religious sect whose apparent stockpiling of weapons at a compound in Waipara was a huge news story in 1977. It's a story with lessons for all sides of our new controversy.

Some members of the sect served at Christchurch's Wigram Air Force Base, and tensions about their connections to the Full Gospel Mission developed through the early 1970s. In May and June of 1977, police and military personnel searched the Mission's Waipara property -- using a warrant that contained the phrase "subversive conspiracy" -- and houses owned by sect members in the Hutt Valley.

But the story didn't break until two sect members driving north were stopped by armed police in Blenheim, and their car searched for explosives. The next day Truth broke the story on its front page, under the headline 'Odd Sect Gun Raid'.

Truth wrote of "a web of intrigue" at a "fortress-like structure" and hinted in a separate story that the sect had been recruiting "airmen skilled in communications". Rumours of a "nuclear pit" at the compound (actually a swimming pool) were quoted as fact. The report set the tone for an orgy of press coverage that should give pause to anyone who complains about today's media. The Press, The Dominion and the Evening Post went wild with words like "sinister", "brainwashed", and "bizarre".

The Herald this morning has a photo of a man it describes as a "paramilitary freedom fighter" fleeing from police. Much as I am inclined to, as The Chills put it once, never trust a man in camouflage gear, that seems a pretty adventurous caption. And the Dom Post's lead slaps a headline, Napalm bombs found in anti-terror swoop, on a story that doesn't exactly seem to say that.

Yesterday, various media organisations also ran with anonymously-sourced claims that the police raids were sparked by a threat against the life of the Prime Minister, even though Police Commissioner Howard Broad carefully said there was no imminent target.

The authorities in 1977 were not so measured in their utterances. Two days after the Truth story, the SIS director Paul Molyneux was reported as saying his organisation was "working with the police to establish if the activities of the sect involved terrorist or subversive aspects". Molyneux went on to publicly dismiss the claim of a set member that the weapons seized in police searches were part of an antique collection: "They may say that it was a private collection, but I am not naïve enough to think that is so," he blustered.

Several folk of North Canterbury saw fit to erect an effigy of a figure on gallows at the gate of the Mission property, and to let loose shotgun blasts in the area.

It was more than a month before a magistrate found that the weapons were legally obtained and possessed, and the story gradually faded -- until another series of searches for weapons in 1987. The Mission fell apart after its messianic leader, Douglas Metcalf (who turned out to have been having his way with the womenfolk) died in 1989.

But, as the Dom Post's story this morning points out:

[O]ne former member of the Full Gospel Mission, John Turton, who later became a Presbyterian minister at Reporoa, said the sect members marched as a military group "basically preparing for what I consider was anarchy".

Police raids on the camp and members' homes throughout New Zealand in 1977 blunted its military capacity. Firearms and ammunition were confiscated and charges were laid against several sect members, including some against Dr Metcalf that were later dismissed.

Mr Turton later said the police action prevented a siege in the style of the shootout in Waco, Texas, where a 51-day stand-off between a religious cult led by David Koresh led to the death of Koresh and 85 of his Branch Davidian followers.

Police raided Camp David again in 1987, but – without the powers conferred by the Terrorism Suppression Act, which only came into force in 2002 – a glitch with the search warrant gave cult members 48 hours to bury their arms along the highway between Waipara and Murchison and in forests, said Mr Turton.

So perhaps the God Squad wasn't entirely benign.

Various people were quick yesterday to bemoan the crushing of their civil rights, to (for goodness sake) compare the raids to activities at Guantanamo Bay and, even in the sane and sensible Public Address forums, allege sweeping state conspiracies without a shred of evidence.

There is also a remarkably widely-held belief that TV3's presence with a camera at the early morning entry to the Abel Smith Street house in Wellington is the fruit of a conspiracy between the police and the media. This not only has no basis in fact, it's completely fucking stupid.

I spoke to TV3's news chief Mark Jennings yesterday afternoon, who said that a cameraman working on Sunrise, saw the police on their way to exercise their warrant nearby, grabbed his camera and followed them, and got a couple of minutes of very useful footage, which TV3 posted as soon as it could, without even adding a commentary. If the dark forces of state control had really been looking to stage a media event, do you really think they'd pick the guy from Sunrise? And wouldn't they have invited along a reporter too?

My own view is that there clearly seems to be enough evidence to warrant some form of police intervention, and that the police have so far (with the exception of a farcical attempt to search without a warrant in Christchurch) played it by the book. The Herald has an interview with a woman who was subject to the recruiting entreaties of the balaclava-clad "freedom fighters" of Ruatoki -- she thought they were " out there and pretty mad" -- and a story (rather disappointing after last night's promotion on the paper's website) of how two local hunters stumbled on one of the camps. The two young men were threatened, retreated, and, as you would, informed the police, who were already investigating the "training camps".

This is the Trade Me feedback page for one of the men arrested, who traded as hunt4life. He bought a hell of a lot of stuff -- ammunition, combat gear, at least one semi-automatic rifle (of a type that could plausibly used for hunting) -- and sold very little. Whatever else might be discovered about hunt4life, his Trade Me rep was first-class.

I didn't see cyber-hori's feedback, but Scoop's photograph of the search warrant for the Wellington house suggests a similar haul.

Would these people really do what is alleged? I don't know, but this blog, which seems connected to some of those arrested, seems to countenance armed resistance in theory. On Indymedia, one looney (who also wanted to come to the New Year "freedom fighters" gathering that seems of interest to the police) is calling for an end to peaceful protest and to "rise and strike down those who have inflicted their pain into the Name of Freedom."

I suspect that most of the people scared witless by the police action yesterday are guilty of nothing more than an association with persons of interest. And I do not think we were facing sectarian warfare or anything of the kind. But it isn't out of the question that a handful of people might act on crazy ideas, as greenies and animal liberationists have before, in other places.

That remains to be seen, just as it remains to be seen that the invoking of the Suppression of Terrorism Act has been appropriate (there's a feeling in certain parts of the public sector that the scale of the operation was intended to demonstrate to our allies that we're not the weak link they link we are, but, again, that's just speculation). But I'm fairly sure that things have been going on that warrant the attention of the police at some level, and I'd feel the same way if those alleged to be involved were right-wing nutters.

Perhaps now would be a good time for everyone to chill out, and perhaps even have a giggle at this post from another forum:

one of the cyber-hori items was:

Army camo / camoflauge pants XXXXL

Fattest terrorist ever.

LOL …

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