There are plenty of horrifying accounts of individual acts of violence on Manus Island. But we need to step back from them and see what is really at fault here: policy, not people.
“I believe what happened was completely predictable, that it was allowed to happen.”
This was the compelling account of violence made last week by former Manus Island migration agent Liz Thompson on SBS’s Dateline. The interview chiefly drew headlines recounting Thompson’s revelation that she had been required to lie to detainees about their settlement future.
Of course, this fact is horrifying. But it is not as shocking nor as useful in informed action against detention camp practices as Thompson’s central claim that death is the inevitable endpoint of the process.
One cannot “Godwin” these days. An analogy between Nazi death camps and Australian ones is considered far too hackneyed. So one cannot say that Australian government policy led as inexorably to murder as German trains did to Belsen. That would be cliche.
But what one also cannot say with the hope to be widely heard is what Thompson said. And that is: people did not do this. Policy did.
This week on SBS, Dateline was business as usual with another report on Manus, this time a critique of the workers on the island and the detainees they harm. Dr David Corlett presented a piece I found almost unwatchable and not just for its account of racist slurs and peculiar cruelties. The fixity of interest on individual acts of violence continues to obscure the system that produced the death of Reza Berati.
Thompson drew a very clear picture of that system. This brutality was not the chance work of bad people but the inevitable work of bad policy. It wasn’t an accident. Produced by a machine whose raison d’etre is dehumanisation, it couldn’t even be seen as collateral damage. For a nationless people already stripped of their individuality, death is the unsurprising next step.
A keen critic whose employment at Manus served not, as it would most of us, to dull our perceptions but heighten them, Thompson followed her Dateline appearance with a post at Crossborder Operational Matters. There, she explained her refusal of an invitation to speak at a rally for refugees.
Thompson’s post is extraordinary for several reasons, and not least for her courage in defying both the Australian government and the majority of the Australian Left. It is also extraordinary for its urging to see a system at work, one that detainees, by her account, are able to see.
This is a process with a searchable history and a force now almost independent of the individuals who either manage or critique it. But there are relatively few critical accounts of that system and its genealogy when compared to those that focus on individual acts of horror.
It is now accepted wisdom that such an intimate account of horror within a system works to ignite outrage. That outrage itself may be an ineffective tool of resistance notwithstanding, this wisdom might itself no longer be true.
Of course, recourse to personal anecdote is common in places like the UN. It has become standard liberal practice to show a sum by describing its parts; in the case of Manus, we describe the individual acts of violence. But perhaps it has become, like the comparison of Nazi brutality to any other kind of instrumental brutality, so typical it is no longer useful.
“What happens in Manus is completely predictable. As predictable as Godwin’s Law and the arrival of the trains at Belsen.”
There was something once to be said for the ’70s mantra “the personal is political”; then, a politics of identity retained a force of resistance. Now, though, because the political is so often seen through an intimate lens that describes individual horrors offshore and allows extreme displays of grief by people onshore, it is possible that it is drained of all broad political concern.
This is no longer a conflation of means and ends — or of personal and political — but an inversion. And one, strangely, that is again flipped in discussion of more intimate horror.
Just as we have acquired political knowledge with the personal narrative of s starving child, the opposite is now so often perversely true. Individual acts are used to describe systems and systems are used to describe individual acts.
The brutal murder of media worker Jill Meagher in inner Melbourne became a story about the patriarchy within hours of the recovery of her body. Such horror is beyond the reach of social explanations, but these were made, without knowledge of the murderer’s botched parole hearings, in any case. Commentators were very clear that this crime was the inevitable byproduct of a system.
Again, with the tragic death of eleven year-old Luke Batty, commentators offered their accounts. This was, variously, the result of poor support for domestic violence, mental health and even police IT. These moments of heartbreak may be made more bearable by such accounts. They are certainly not made more understandable.
This is not to say, of course, that the patriarchy had no hand in the death of Jill Meagher or that inadequate mental health services might not have had some role in the death of a dear little boy. It is, however, to suggest that these accounts, so easily and instantly made by a range of commentators without particular forensic expertise, are incomplete. We do not know why Meagher and Batty were taken so horribly. For an account of this very individual and rare horror, perhaps we are better to look at the tragedies of Sophocles than the hypotheses of amateur sociology.
No one can say with much certainty why there are 300 murders committed annually in Australia. Everyone can say why Reza Berati died. Yet Berati’s story, as terrible as it is, is reviewed as unknowable horror and Meagher’s continues to provoke very clear accounts.
The political is occluded by the personal and the personal is occluded by the political. The genealogy of instrumental violence that led to Berati’s death will lead to others and will continue to strip both guards and detainees of their access to what makes them themselves.
What happens in Manus is completely predictable. As predictable as Godwin’s Law and the arrival of the trains at Belsen.