The Government has taken its time to decide New Zealand will not join Western allies in military action against the terrorist group that has taken over part of Iraq and Syria. The decision will surprise those who read too much into our presence at a military briefing in Washington addressed by President Barack Obama a few weeks ago and the Prime Minister's comment that it would be "odd" if we did not take some part in the action. But as the weeks passed it became less likely.
John Key's long-awaited response yesterday avoided any criticism of the United States-led operation "to degrade and destroy" the murderous organisation known as Islamic State (Isis), but the likely effectiveness of a strategy limited to air strikes with no realistic end in view must have been crucial to the decision not to commit any troops, even the SAS, to combat roles in theregion.
New Zealand's support for the coalition is to be limited to intelligence sharing with the "Five Eyes" partners, diplomacy, humanitarian aid in Syria and Iraq and possibly some help for Iraq to strengthen its military and civil institutions.
The intelligence steps will be the most contentious. Having chosen not to join the battle in Iraq and Syria, the Government has decided to take extra-ordinary measures against Isis sympathisers in New Zealand. Mr Key says the Security Intelligence Service has between 30 and 40 such people under watch and another 30 to 40 on a list requiring further investigation. He announced an increase in the SIS budget and staff for this purpose and intends to give it legislated power to carry out video surveillance on private property. "It may surprise some people to hear the SIS cannot generally undertake visual surveillance in a private setting or which would involve trespass on to private property," he said.
Legislation will give the service power to use hidden cameras under warrant or, if a need is urgent, to do so without warrant for up to 48 hours. He insists there are "people in or from New Zealand who are, in various ways, participating in extremist behaviour. Some of those on the watch list have travelled to Syria to engage in fighting and remain there. Others are Isil [Isis] supporters who have tried to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight and have been prevented from leaving by cancellation of their passports."
Mr Key said he did not want to overstate the risks but went on to say, "There are individuals here who are attracted to carrying out domestic attacks of the type we have seen prevented in Australia and recently take place in Canada."
The public has to trust him on this. Hard as it may be to believe a distant, religious nationalism could inspire anyone to violence in this country, only the Prime Minister and his closest advisers are able to assess the evidence collected by the intelligence agencies.
We can only hope he and others who see the evidence are not exaggerating the threat to justify measures as extreme as the cancellation of passports for three years. They should not curtail anyone's freedom of travel without certainty the person is going to fight for Isis, and even then, some would say, they should be free to go. Mr Key's answer: "We do not want to have a reputation for exporting foreign terrorist fighters to places which already have more than enough of them." Reputation should not be the main consideration. We should not be holding people here on mere suspicion.
Extreme measures like these carry the risk of glamorising their target. Acts of violence are not "terror" in this country, they are crimes and will be treated as such. The susceptible need to get that message above all.