JUST days after security officials raised the national terrorism alert, hundreds of police have swooped in Sydney and Queensland, arresting suspects accused of plotting violence.
It has been alleged that some people associated with Islamic extremist groups were urging others to commit violent acts, including – it is said – the beheading of innocent Australian civilians.
These chilling allegations will find ready enough acceptance, given the bloody recent record of the extremist movement worldwide.
It may take some time before it becomes clear how well-formed this alleged criminal intention was at the time of the arrests.
In the meantime, feelings on all sides have become even more inflamed than they already had been after Australia’s decision to join the coalition of nations involved in military strikes against Islamic extremist fighters in Iraq.
Some Muslim groups have begun organising demonstrations against the arrests, and police are warning that people who take their protests too far and who break the law will be severely dealt with.
Following on the heels of media reports of abuse and threats levelled at members of the Australian armed forces and at members of churches, all the ingredients are present for some nasty confrontations.
Nobody could criticise the police and security authorities for acting quickly and firmly to prevent violent crimes if they had good reason to believe such crimes were being planned.
Some will complain that innocent households may have been targeted along with the potentially guilty, that some innocent people may have been unfairly traumatised and that outrage at the police raids may create new activists and enemies to civil order.
If the case for the arrests was sound, however, limited collateral discomfort will be deemed acceptable, as always when preventing crime is the intention.
If tensions escalate, the heightened polarisation of the community will probably help steel national resolve to back Australia’s military action against extremists in the Middle East.
Sadly, some will regard that as a desirable propaganda goal in itself.
But the tighter the spiral of anger and distrust winds, the harder it is for moderate voices to be heard.
Indeed, such sparks as this event may sometimes start self-perpetuating conflicts like those that plague so many nations but which have been largely absent from Australian society.
This is a moment when good leadership – in government, mosque and church – can and should be called upon to calm fears and tempers on all sides.
It serves none but the narrowest and worst of interests to fan the flames of hatred and anger in times like these.