Should David Hicks have been applauded?

Former Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks (centre) walks to the exit at Adelaide's maximum security Yalata jail, 29 December 2007Image source, AFP
Image caption,
David Hicks was convicted on charges of providing material support for terrorism in 2007

To some it was grotesque. To others it was richly deserved. I am talking of the standing ovation that came at the end of David Hicks's appearance at the Sydney Writers' Festival this past weekend - the focus of the latest skirmish in Australia's cultural wars.

Once again, as he did in the run-up to the 2007 federal election, Hicks has exposed the chasm between what might crudely be described as 'literary festival Australia' and 'talkback radio Australia' - the 'leftist urban elites', as they are often characterised, and the populist right.

David Hicks, who was convicted on charges of providing material support for terrorism in 2007 after being held for five years at Guantanamo Bay, has always been an emblematic figure.

For critics of John Howard, he became a totem for much of what was wrong with the Bush administration's war on terror, and what they complained was the then prime minister's slavish support for the US president. Hicks's detention at Guantanamo also violated a very elemental sense of Australian fair play. For many, then, it was about a principle rather than about a man.

For the right, meanwhile, he offered proof of the left's credulousness and instinctive anti-Americanism. How could it be, they asked, that a man accused of joining the Islamic militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (we are talking here of the organisation behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, among many others) and who allegedly received weapons training at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan became a poster boy for progressives?

Different perspectives

In the aftermath of his ovation at the Sydney Writers' Festival, where he spoke publicly for the first time about his detention at Guantanamo, the argument over the meaning of David Hicks has flared again.

Before going on, I should point out, in the interests of full disclosure, that we share a publisher - although I have never met David Hicks, nor read his book.

But let's give a flavour of the response to that standing ovation, which reveals more about Australia and its culture wars.

Here's Miranda Devine writing in The Daily Telegraph: "Listening to David Hicks's speech at the Sydney Writers' Festival last weekend you'd think he'd been over in Afghanistan wiping the brow of AIDS sufferers and holding the hands of leprosy victims.

"Certainly, the idiots in the audience who gave him a standing ovation seemed to think he was the Australian male version of Mother Teresa."

Offering a very different perspective, here's Mary Kostakidis, who used to present the evening news on the Australian channel SBS and who attended the presentation:

"The mood was not one of jubilation or adulation, but of attentiveness and reflection. No one leapt up at the end of his talk, swept up by a moment. People rose to their feet gradually and with a sense of purpose and obligation.

"They applauded because they felt we as a nation had let him down then, but it wasn't too late to stand up for him now."

I would be keen to know what you think. Should Hicks have received a standing ovation? Or was it wholly inappropriate? Some of you, I dare say, were in attendance. So your comments please...