It is four and a half years since the infamous police raids at Ruatoki and elsewhere, and nearly seven years since the police first took an interest in some of those investigated on terrorism charges. And still it is -- until the police make a decision on whether to retry the charge of participating in an organised criminal group -- not over yet.
But, as gruelling as the wait must have been for those charged, they should also be glad they were not tried in the fevered atmosphere in which they were arrested. In my first post on the case, I noted that The Dominion Post had published a story under the screaming headline 'Napalm bombs found in anti-terror swoop'. Those bombs were presumably lost again, because they formed no part of the evidence presented in court.
But some of those involved -- Whiri Kemara in particular -- did amass weapons and military equipment (his records, under two accounts, at Trade Me are an eye-opener). Kemara even attempted to buy a grenade or flare launcher in Auckland. (Although what happened is often depicted as Tuhoe's business in their own rohe, quite a bit of the evidence was gathered in Auckland, much of it near where I live.) They were sufficiently intense about what they were doing that one young Christchurch activist was "overwhelmed" and "a bit freaked out" by what he experienced at a camp.
The woman interviewed in 2007 by James Ihaka for the Herald about her interaction with the "freedom fighters" was more scathing:
The woman went to meet the group in the Ruatoki Valley, where after a few hours of waiting a group of balaclava-wearing men, kitted out in army-style clothing, arrived in a van.
"I thought I was going to be kidnapped - I told them 'I'm not getting into that van', but they said it was all a part of their initiation.
"It was like secret service stuff, but they tried to get me to join their group. I just told them I was leaving and they were wasting their time."
"And I told them 'take those stupid bloody balaclavas off'."
These guys weren't heroes and they weren't terrorists. They were dickheads. They revved up each other with cries of war and blood. Intercepts caught Jamie Lockett, who met repeatedly with Iti and Kemara in Auckland, declaring:
"I'm training up to be a vicious, dangerous commando"
"White men are going to die in this country"
"I'm at war. I'm declaring war on this country very soon"
Macho bullshit? Probably. But Lockett does have convictions for assault and threatening behaviour. Some people who know him admire his efforts as a bush lawyer on his own behalf; others regard him as someone to stay the hell away from.
Not everyone caught up in this was like that, of course. It's not hard to imagine the young, urban activists being won over by the romance of the whole thing. Some of them clearly had misgivings once they got involved. In the images presented to the court, they look wide-eyed, excited and a bit scared to be pointing firearms.
So were these peace activists really training for work as security guards in Iraq? Molotov cocktails and all? Even Tame Iti struggled to keep a straight face on that one in his interview outside the High Court with Mark Sainsbury yesterday.
Valerie Morse's customary raging self-regard slipped deep into disingenuousness in her Morning Report interview today. She would have been better to break with form and simply shut up. There really is no good explanation for some of what she and others did.
Another element of the defence case rings truer: that these people couldn't possibly have been part of an organised criminal group because they were plainly such fools.
The police, too, were fools. I think it's almost beyond doubt that, as the Operation 8: Deep in the Forest documentary contends, they got caught up in their own narrative. They wanted a terrorism bust in the age of the War on Terror, under the new Suppression of Terrorism Act. It seems to me that they ignored other options, other charges, in pursuit of that goal.
Indeed, it appears that they were so fixated on terror charges that their case almost fell apart when the Solicitor General, professing sorrow, decline to approve charges under that law. They almost lost the ability to use a swathe of evidence gathered under interception warrants, and were lucky to scramble it back for the more serious charges brought against the final four defandants. They muffed the gathering of other evidence and there are indications that a police source was feeding information to Iti and his friends.
I do think that what was going on warranted police attention, not because there was any chance of these clowns overthrowing the state, but because there was a reasonable possibility of someone getting hurt. The wilder proclamations intercepted under warrant are clearly the words of big-noting men, the kind of bullshit people talk when they're high. They were never going to assasinate John Key or Helen Clark. But there was certainly the prospect of someone doing something stupid.
Whether that prospect justified the traumatic raids visited on Ruatoki is another matter. The scale and force of the raids seems horribly out of step with the reality of the situation -- and the decision to set up a checkpoint on the historic confiscation line was staggeringly stupid.
The news media -- and the Dominion Post in particular -- should also ruminate on the extent to which they were worked by their police sources in 2007. The craziest, most inflammatory claims were blown up and stripped of context, serving the interest of policemen who probably already knew their case had some problems.
I checked what I said at the time, in the discussion for that first post. I'm reasonably happy with this:
... a few people will have said very, very stupid things in emails, phone conversations and possibly rooms. Things amply sufficient to warrant the interest of the police and upset the middle classes. What else are all the Indymedia types telling each other (and Bomber) to keep schtum about?
I’m guessing the rumoured threat on the Prime Minister’s life will prove have been uttered, but will not have been near being actioned. Again, amply sufficient for police interest.
But I had too much faith in the idea that there would be evidence for the "napalm bombs" the papers were talking about. I overestimated the degree of public outrage that would persist by the time the whole thing finally got to court. I overestimated the competence of the police. In the end, virtually no one comes out of this well.
Reasonable people will differ on the acceptable limits of disssent in a democracy -- personally, I feel that when people gather arms and plan (however haphazardly) political violence, it diminishes my stake in that democracy.
It diminished Tuhoe too. When people spoke of Tuhoe before October 2007, they spoke of the remarkable steps the iwi was taking to determine its own destiny. Now, they talk about the terror raids. And Tame Iti and his friends must take some of the responsibility for that.
But it's time for an end. The police should swallow their pride and decline to re-try the serious charges. They could say that the evidence has been put before the public, which can reach its own conclusions. They could seek to fetch back the original, widely-leaked affidavit from Wikileaks-land, so the full picture is evident. But whatever else, they should acknowledge that it's time to move on.