What follows is the first in a series of three related reflections on the anniversary of SIEV 221, the Christmas Island Boat Tragedy.

Part One: The integral accident

In the dark reflection of the one-year anniversary of the shipwreck of SIEV 221 – the Christmas Island Boat Tragedy – it’s time to ask ourselves and each other: what have we learned? Not only because this was Australia’s deadliest shipwreck in since 1890, as David Marr’s descriptive piece points out; – 41 rescued, as many as 50 dead, including eight children and infants, and twenty or so whose bodies have never been recovered. It’s time we used this anniversary to begin directly posing some of the most difficult and troubling questions about this event. You may want answers, I offer only questions. These questions are difficult for a number of reasons. Difficult due to their weight, in that they bear on us as Australians, in our identity. Difficult for their call to us, in that they implicate us in light of our embrace of border security as a political choice. And difficult to talk about in that, to a large extent, we have not even begun to formulate them. In fact, what’s striking about SIEV 221 is that it seems to have left no mark on the national imagination. We are not dealing with repression and guilt; there is no trauma.

What have we learned? In order to begin responding to this question, it’s worth considering how, thus far, SIEV 221 has been identified, recognised and assessed by those whose job it is to perform border security on our behalf.

SIEV 221 provoked swift reflection by Customs and Border Security; by late December, they had produced this internal report. In March of this year, a Standing Committee was formed; its report, published June 29, is available here. Brendan O’Connor, as the representative of the government, has responded to its findings here. The WA coroner, Alistair Hope, is expected to deliver his findings in the new year – Marr’s article, linked above, discusses many of the significant details, and adds a narrative (if you are unsure about the details, please consider reading it carefully first). Having read all of them, what I find striking about their findings and recommendations, first and foremost, is a preference for technology.

All the reports dwell on technical and technological failings: communications breakdowns, engine breakdowns, insufficient radar. This has meant that the recommendations are, likewise, overwhelmingly technical in nature. They say: we need better radar. And perhaps rocket-propelled life jackets. And jet skis. Granted there were a number of technical and technological failings, detailed in the reports linked above. And nobody in Border Protection Command (BPC) saw SIEV 221 coming. It was, in the government’s language, ‘un-alerted and un-attributed’; what, Marr’s report tells us, Christmas Islanders call a ‘sneaker’.

I want to leave aside an assessment of the details, and, with learning in mind, ask the following: what do we want when we want technology? As I see it, to the extent that we understand our problems as technological, then so too are the solutions. Their application is a technical matter. This has the conspicuous advantage of avoiding the fundamental politics of the issue; that is, the inherently contentious matter of what it means to decide among a set of possibilities, in a situation that we approach as a matter of concern, full of contingency. In other, less ‘campus’ words: granted that ‘the boats’ arrive, Australia’s response – a border security response – is nonetheless a political choice, one that does not approach ‘the boats’ as fate, destiny, or a terrible, inevitable aspect of determined world, but rather as threat objects to be identified, interdicted, and transferred – using high-technology equipment. Focusing on technology allows us to forget politics and its mess, to avoid any broader, deeper reflection on the context and complex of ‘border security’. And it will, the empirical record suggests, mean more funding, more resources, for BPC.

One way of thinking about SIEV 221 and technology is through what Paul Virilio calls the ‘integral accident’.

“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress” (Virilio, The Politics of the Very Worst, 89).

As I see it, SIEV 221 is the ‘integral accident’ of Australian border security. Why weren’t the Iraqis in Iraq? Why weren’t the Indonesians fishing, in Indonesia? Why is everyone captured within this frame standing on a slippery rock on the tip of an oceanic volcano in the middle of the Indian Ocean, in the middle of a storm, just after dawn, little more than a week before Christmas? An infinite regress of reasons and causes, surely? Absolutely: foremost among them horrendous inequality and conflict processes, many of which we actively support and are engaged in (boat arrivals thus far, have not come from Switzerland). But it never would have happened precisely as it did without border security as it is. Never mind cause and blame, let us accept what happened in its fullness. If we accept border security and its high-tech equipment, we must also accept its integral accidents, and the trauma that entails. SIEV 221 is the side effect of the system’s operation. Technologies can be improved, but accidents will happen. And given that the system has not substantially changed, accidents will happen again.

On Monday, in part two, I move to consider the weather, as well as the reasons why BPC recognises boat arrivals as threats, even when, subjectively, they may be in danger.