Our Zones of Suffering31 August 2016
Content warning: discussions of sexual assault, child abuse and violence.
If you close one eye and squint at the Indian Ocean, you might see a policy working exactly as designed. No flood of leaky boats, no drownings. And if you raise a hand to shield your eyes from the glare of Manus and Nauru, you might see the sun glinting off the glassy waters of our integral, sovereign border. We’ve done it.
But what have we done? Have we reduced the number of people fleeing Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Vietnam? Or have we just told them not to bleed on our doorstep?
Have we made drownings in our seas disappear, like magic? Or have we exchanged them like bloody coins for 28 boat turnbacks in the last three years, for torture and persecution elsewhere?
Have we used our considerable resources to shelter the brave and the needy, who have seen and suffered things that most Australians will never need to? Or are we spending $1.2 billion a year to deport and sexually abuse children so that refugees don’t come here?
We are a long, long way past establishing whether or not the offshore processing regime does amount to torture, a war of sexual violence against women and a slow process of soul-scarring degradation. So we need to start asking why the people responsible for this program are sitting in Parliament House instead of The Hague.
This partly comes down to collective responsibility. We must own our actions. Responsible adults tell this to children who lie. Own it. You did this. Your actions are not visited on you by some malicious sprite. Similarly, we need to own our zones of suffering on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. We can’t ship people to other countries, fund and run their detention centres, then pass the buck to those countries when something goes wrong. We can’t have it both ways. This is on us.
How direct is our responsibility, though? The average Melbourne student, staff member or worker – are we responsible? Well, let’s take Wilson Security. Our parking fees fund Wilson. Our fees fund our university, which funds Wilson. They’re hiring campus guards right now. So some of Wilson’s employees run our carparks and keep our campus safe. Other Wilson employees assault children, stalk whistleblowers, spy on elected senators and run a “modern Stanford prison experiment” on Nauru, according to former Wilson guards and detainees. They run security on Manus too. So if your parking money and your uni fees are funding crimes against humanity and child abuse, you are directly responsible.
Then there’s the election. In 2016, the one major party proposing to end offshore detention received 9.9 per cent of the national vote and only one lower house seat. In 2019, everybody should flock to any anti-offshore party, instead of defaulting to the traditional parties or making protest votes for xenophobic independents. Members and supporters attempting to steer their parties towards more humane policies certainly deserve credit. Yet we can all try to steer our state away from violence through all means available, including at the ballot box. That’s a pretty direct responsibility, too.
And electoral politics is far from ideal, far from a recipe for authentic civic engagement. Voters increasingly feel that theirs is a purely formal right to choose the least-worst option, and young people feel this acutely. Refugee policy was the most important issue for 17 to 25-year-olds in this election. So, the ABC noted, bipartisan contempt for refugees is part of the reason that “young people might feel disconnected from this campaign. On the issue where they most want to see change, the major parties are in agreement…”
But this groundswell of youthful disgust with institutionalised cruelty is also empowering and has more outlets than just voting every three years. There are always movements pushing for more participatory, relevant and responsive politics. The Whistleblowers Activists and Citizens Alliance, for instance, have recently blockaded Wilson’s carparks to publicise the company’s human rights abuses and have encouraged major retail centres like Melbourne Central to break ties with these mercenary thugs. The University of Melbourne’s students are responsible for doing the same – ending our university’s material support for brutal, political violence. (For more info, like the “Boycott Wilson” Facebook page, or email email@example.com).
Social movements like this assume that exploitation and oppression are structural, while most individual people are creative, sociable, cooperative and empathetic. Political delegation allows such people to condone utterly brutal deeds. Most supporters of the major parties end up accepting deeds being done in their name, which they could never personally do.
Most of us would not have hit Reza Barati in the head with a nail-spiked plank, dropped a rock on his head, then kicked him in the head until he died. We would not have waited 30 hours, while Hamid Khazaei suffered three heart attacks and brain death, before taking him to the hospital. We wouldn’t have driven Hodan Yasin and Omid Masoumali to light their skin on fire, screaming. But we voted in the government that organised these deaths and the others which will doubtless come.
Ordinary people don’t commit violence comfortably, with their own hands. Some do but they’re a minority. Politicians, when they’re not unabashedly proud of their brutal dominance like Dutton, Morrison and Abbott, are insulated from or wilfully ignorant of the concrete effects of their policies. Foot soldiers, implementing the degradation and bullying, justify their actions with doublethink, trust in their superiors and commitment to an abstract idea. Often horrified by the consequences, these people sacrifice their careers and livelihood in the most heartening cases, ripping themselves away from the system of dehumanisation. Taxpayers, voters and citizens are mostly good people in their daily lives. They are murderers in their delegated choices.
This illustrates a broader tendency. People say things online that they would never say to the same person in real life – ask any woman. People act in traffic like they would never act in a queue at the post office. And people accept conduct by their state – their deeply, proudly racist settler-colony – that they would never be willing to personally perpetrate. Mediating entities or submission to authority can numb the morality demanded by the immediacy of human interaction.
Australians are preoccupied with the abstract – the inviolate integrity of the state’s body, the drownings averted, sacrosanct “on-water matters”, strength, resolve – and not with the practical. What if we judged this policy based on the practical? What if we closed our ears to the dog-whistles and propaganda and we told everyone in this country exactly what those abstractions mean?
Strong border security means paying smugglers, using our navy to strand humans out at sea, and sending them back to torture and prison.
Regional resettlement means denying refugees’ legal right to asylum, spending $55 million sending five humans to Cambodia, or dumping humans in Nauru or Manus, where violence from locals leaves them too scared to leave their prison.
Offshore processing means psychological torture, revictimising humans who have fled wars and exposing to abuse children who are not yet old enough to have done any wrong. It means grinding humans into the dirt.
We are responsible for our navy, our tax money, our corporations, our political elite. What would an ethical exercise of that responsibility look like? It would involve searing excoriation of the criminal fear-mongers who inflict rape and violence upon other members of our species, and of the corporations who profit from this persecution. It would involve communication, sharing, and advocacy by people lucky enough not to be forcibly displaced from their homes – most Australians.
Our widespread silence makes a mockery of detainees starving themselves, sewing their lips together, and protesting with unimaginable resilience and temerity inside the torture camps built with our tax money. We need to rise on both sides of the sea, both sides of the fence, to condemn offshore processing and turn our rage towards the politicians who remain proud of perpetrating it. All the pragmatic arguments have been made – that refugees contribute economically and don’t sponge, that people arriving by boat are overwhelmingly refugees, that the Australian state is breaking the law and refugees are not. They should continue to be made.
But July’s vote reaffirmed bipartisan support for intolerance and cynical, underhanded violence. In answer, we need more than acquiescence and disgusted aversion. “All over the place,” Noam Chomsky observed, “from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume”. We must resist this pressure and take all available actions to tear the major parties away from this policy, as we tear votes away from those parties. We should speak out, write, boycott, protest, lobby, call out bullshit and propose real alternatives. Because it would be nice to look out at our oceans and know that those glassy blue seas were not the sites of crimes, behind razor wire, perpetrated in our name.