Remember David Kang? Of course you don’t. He doesn’t want you to, either. He’s a lawyer in Sydney these days, but 20 years ago this month he climbed up the side of a platform in the newly opened wonderland of Darling Harbour in Sydney and aimed a pistol at a public dignitary, firing off two shots. The dignitary was Prince Charles, and the shots were blanks, from a starter’s pistol. He was tackled to the ground by a dozen or so people.

When the papers dug into his backstory, they had a familiar story. A depressed student, he had been writing to the royal family, presidents, the Pope. What he was writing to them about was barely mentioned, an obscure topic — the treatment of Cambodian refugees in the new system of mandatory detention that the Labor government had set up. That’s what he’d been depressed about — the fact that we could treat people that way.

Twenty years. Twenty years. Twenty years in which we could have worked out a better way to deal with the arrival of people by boat on our shores, could have anticipated that the world would get mobile and turbulent. Twenty years in which the leaders of both parties could have taken a populace with, erm, issues around arrivals from the north in a more positive direction. Instead, as global mobility has increased, our two parties — Venal and Scared — have outdone each other in getting us into a situation that manages to be both unworkable and unspeakably cruel at the same time.

The most recent revelations — of women separated from newborn children, of inadequate medical care, of hunger strikes, self-harm, suicidal children, staff cruelty, all taking part in an unserviced corner of a ramshackle client state, run by a global “human management” corporation — will be sheeted home to the Abbott government. But of course, the processes that made them possible began under the Gillard government, if not the first Rudd reign. Indeed, there should be questions as to why it took so long for the details of these new practices to be investigated by a major news organisation. The new suite of cruel practices was reintroduced, with the justification that it would prevent ship sinkings and mass drownings (even though the largest and most lethal sinking, Siev-X, had occurred under the old punitive regime).

Now, however, we are combining a harsh and punitive regime with turning back the boats, “when safe”, on the basis of a quick and inevitably approximate assessment by a naval officer. So the risk is being increased, while the punishment continues.

Central to the process of the camps we now run is that their cruelty does not occur through any action, but through the absence of it — absence of liberty, absence of medical care that could otherwise be accessed, absence of hope. With refugees sequestered at both Nauru and Manus, they are in danger from the sheer lack of critical scrutiny. It is a lethal indifference, and it is nothing new. Camps designed to deal with an unwanted category of people track back to the 18th century. But it was only in the 19th, with the French invasion of Algeria in the 1830s, the Spanish suppression of Cuban resistance in the 1870s, and the British use of them in the Boer war — whence the name “concentration” was bestowed — that they became systematic. There were periods when the British concentration camps, through typhus outbreaks, had a higher weekly death rate than later would Dachau — but the point was always that suffering came not from doing something, but from doing nothing at all.

“He did not understand that for people who presume on our humanity, no punishment will suffice.”

The lethality of our camps is considerably less — although, these days, how would we know if people are dying? — but they operate on exactly the same principle. In the 20th century, people moved en masse to try and make political change, and ended — in Dachau, in the Gulag, in the British camps where the Mau-Mau prospered — in mass killing. Today’s asylum seekers move in a more atomised world, and with greater hopes: that they will escape not merely with their skin, but be able to make a life somewhere, not in the next generation. For that reason, indifference and despair, rather than physical torture, are their main tools. Whatever people hoped they might gain by getting on a boat, they are presented with the exact opposite. That is especially so with children. We know from numerous studies — from a century that provided plenty of raw material — that anything longer than 12-18 months of such detention will permanently psychologically damage children — and once again, that seems to be the point. From the “children overboard” lies to now, children are the focus of such studied indifference.

Maybe the Rudd II/Abbott policy of settling successful refugees in Papua New Guinea will help — though it’s in flagrant breach of our treaty obligations, a treaty a Liberal Party minister helped write. But the remarkable effect, on us, of treating people as non-human, is to make us angrier. It is not, in this respect at least, that we are a cruel people. That’s precisely why such punitive measure have to be done offshore, and as a process of negligence, rather than conscious violence. For conscious, deeply felt violence, check out a film like The Act of Killing, in which perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian massacres of Leftists and ethnic Chinese (political massacres gleefully supported by our local Right). Half-a-century on, those guys have never lost a night’s sleep over what they did.

Which is why, no matter what we do about asylum seekers, it is never enough to satisfy our sense that we have been imposed upon, taken advantage of. Because the ultimate deterrent would not be to turn back the boats, but to take pot shots at a randomly selected number of them. But that would be too raw, too forceful. We want impersonal processes that have the appearance of having no human agency, occurring outside Australia, which must be kept pristine, because it’s the land of the fair go. Because those most angry with asylum seekers cannot, will not own such violence, it assuages nothing in them. So we are at an impasse, because we have no next move.

Twenty years ago, Labor could have stopped this, by altering the whole process, at a time when it had not yet become a political football. The moral thing would have been the politically advantageous thing, for Labor; to cut off a pissing contest it could never win before it started. Even in the Rudd period, they could have normalised it, by expanding the Christmas Island facilities, moving all but a small category of arrivals into community residency — and leaving the Right with no story. Labor has even lost to the Greens on the issue — the cracking down persuading a new slice of waverers to commit to the Greens afresh.

Thus it is that our current impasse perfectly bookends the mostly forgotten event that attended its beginning. David Kang found the whole process so insane that public indifference to it briefly drove him mad. We persisted with it, and it has grown back into the culture. Kang threatened no one but himself — so, wisely, he was only sentenced to community service. That would not happen today, in part because of the success of the process he was trying to draw attention to.

He did not understand that for people who presume on our humanity, no punishment will suffice.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey