"Having had an economy seemingly running on auto-pilot for so long, we now seem to be willing to choose our governments solely on their capacity to manage our collective anxieties."But shooting people dead, in an Australian-run camp, in a situation where security guards appear to be much of the cause of violence, cruelty and chaos, is something else again. It’s an event that can’t help but disorder the whole regime. Any number of people can commit suicide in a detention camp, and that too can be sheeted back to them. But kill someone and there’s two choices: you either abandon any idea of law altogether, or you have to own the process in some way. The first option is simply impossible. The latter means that the dead guy or guys will be around forever -- and will exist as persons in the system far more visibly than they did when they were alive. Ruthlessness. When you start a process, you better be ready to finish it. Of course there is no way of finishing it. Once you open a concentration camp on a far-flung island, you better be willing to go all the way with it. Since a concentration camp reduces any inmate to nothing, to a mere unit, sooner or later people will reclaim their humanity by resisting, on any terms. At that point, you can either respond with absolute ruthless force, or you’ve already started to lose. The camp is the starting point of a process whose end is extermination, either exemplary or mass. If you’re not prepared to go that far, then, when you started it, you weren’t being serious at all. That is the point the Coalition are at now. They were pitched into this part of the Pacific solution by the Rudd government, and now they own it. We don’t know whether the latest lethal chaos was started by protesting inmates who were then set upon by G4S guards, or local police or Manus Islanders or all three. But at some point it seems clear the locals took things into their own hands. There is something tragically ironic about this, because while Australians play at being hard, PNGers are the real deal -- a nation-state grouping together multitudes of parochial societies, most of whom see violence as part and parcel of everyday life, of honour and respect. This was always the most bizarre part of the idea of refugees being permanently "settled" in PNG -- the suggestion that people could simply move into a kinship society, maybe get a condo in some up-and-coming part of Moresby, when the whole country is criss-crossed with lines of affiliation and belonging. Madness on stilts, literally in this case. The lesson one draws from this, in organising against it, is not that Australians are currently a brutal people hiding behind a sunny veneer, but that they aren’t -- and that the Coalition doesn’t believe they are either. Why attack the veracity of the "burnt hands" story if that were not the case? Why not simply, smirkingly, say the navy got a little creative, or some-such? The Coalition knows that many of the people who support the bipartisan line on boat arrivals are either humane or squeamish, depending on your angle. They know for that reason that what the mass of the population wanted was not a harsh policy per se, but for the refugee problem to be invisible. No boats is one way of it being so, riots in camps is very much not. Though taking a harsh line on boat arrivals is held to be a political necessity for both major parties, the Coalition knows there is a paradoxical effect contained within (one that also applies to a range of other social issues such as the environment). A policy that makes refugees invisible will gain broad support. But one that taps into a conservative indifference to the suffering of others, or even a degree of forthrightness/bastardry, is more likely to win slices of support in socially conservative Labor seats where the Libs don’t have a chance, and lose support in some marginal Liberal seats, where Labor has a very real chance. In a tight election -- such as forecast by this week’s Essential poll -- that pattern would make or break the Coalition’s chances. Indeed, Australia now has a very strange and interesting politics. Having had an economy seemingly running on auto-pilot for so long, we now seem to be willing to choose our governments solely on their capacity to manage our collective anxieties. I’m not sure any other polity in the world is quite so committed to this political-psychological form at the moment, though it has echoes of Salazar’s clerico-military Portugal of the grand old days. Simultaneously lethal and yet not serious, not serious at all, it is far more vulnerable to a call for common humanity and collective values than it looks.
In the race to be brutal, you have to finish the job
Australia's policy of brutality towards asylum seekers isn't foolproof, as the deadly Manus Island protest revealed. Pitched into the Pacific solution by Labor, the government now has to own it.