There’s a certain brutal appropriateness at work. In the week of Anzac, an Iranian man sets himself alight in Nauru and dies of his wounds. Several days later a young Somali does the same and is now in critical condition. After the dawn services across the country, this is our new eternal flame — our country’s beacon to the world is now that of people who feel so annihilated by our “life-saving” refugee process that they now wish not merely to end their lives, but to do so in the most painful way possible. Such an act is not merely a desire to end one’s own suffering, nor simply a protest; it is a way of reclaiming an annihilated life through the manner of the death.
Such a reaction to incarceration on a desert prison for no reason, with the prospect that it may be a decade or more before there is any real release, if there is release at all, cannot be reduced to psychological categories no matter how much governments would like to class it as hysteria — or even more absurdly, as blackmail. There may be psychological meltdown surrounding it, but at its root it is an existential act, a reclamation of the freedom that is threatened by psychological disintegration. From the outside, it may seem something never to be chosen or endorsed, an understandable but terrible reaction to being wholly negated. But in circumstances such as our regime in Nauru, there’s no way to judge, from outside, when enough is enough.
People who undertake such acts do it not only for themselves, but for those around them. By reclaiming the meaning of their life through self-annihilation, they give others back a little of it too, enough to keep going. The pain of burning to death does not seem to be the point of it, though it is what preys on the mind most: the importance of self-immolation is the totality of the destruction, the body burnt alive by one’s own hand. There are few violent deaths that are not open to grotesque black humour: suicide bombers have their vest arranged so that their heads will blow clean off and roll away. Only from inside the cult that approves of such a bombing could one not see that as grimly funny. Man Haron Monis’ religious-political siege in a chocolate shop wasn’t funny, but it was absurd from start to finish. Doubtless the jokes will come about these events. But they never really impact. You can’t talk away someone burning to death by their own hand, which is something that people who do it understand, at some level.
Such an act is like an end-stop to moral debate, a place where any injunction comes into contradiction. Would you want someone to do such a thing? Absolutely not, still less urge them to do it. But would you deny the honour and meaning of the act? Equally absolutely not. Such an act is categorically different to hunger strikes, self-harm by cutting, sewn lips, and other acts, which mix protest with trauma. Death by burning is a way of making the nihilism of the current system wholly visible, making it impossible for it to hide behind language of rational management, incentive, utilitarian leverage, etc, etc. Whether this will have an effect remains to be seen. The Australian system, like other annihilating systems of incarceration — such as US solitary confinement regimes — denies that it is torture by relying on a too-narrow physical definition of torture. At the same time it deals out a horror that does not need to be spoken of: that of limbo, of meaninglessness, of nothingness.
Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey
Choose what you pay, from $99.
In the case of Australia, this is done openly, as part of its process: see what will happen if you try and come here by boat. Self-harm by prisoners thus becomes part of the global PR campaign: we’ll drive you so crazy you’ll burn yourself to death! Because the policy is undertaken in the ostensibly humanitarian spirit of preventing drownings, almost any form of mental and spiritual depredation can be gleefully celebrated. As your correspondent has noted before, this system perfectly illustrates the moral slippage at the heart of disowning the difference between the morality of action, and the morality of inaction: to use what is now a calibrated and detailed system of torment to “prevent” events that have not occurred licenses an almost unlimited repertoire of horrors, and absolves Australian citizens of ownership of them.
It is not clear what horrific actions there would have to be en masse in these camps for there to be some sort of moral crisis, either within the two major parties or the wider public. Quite conceivably 10, 20 refugees in such camps could commit violent collective suicide, and the bulk of the population would remain unmoved. We have created a system in which people who are far less brutal, disdainful and sadistic than the new hard-right groupings of Europe can nevertheless countenance things that many of the followers of such groups would not tolerate in the treatment of refugees: a perfect hands-off system, for the systemic reproduction of everyday cruelty.
There has to be something significant in the fact that after textiles, footwear, appliances, cars, steel, the only thing we’re really good at manufacturing is the suffering of others. From here, anything is possible. We have become a global laboratory for this sort of doling out. Possibly, the application of it elsewhere will be subcontracted out to ex-public servants looking for a payday. Alternatively, the situation in Nauru will take other turns. It’s to the credit of those protesting that self-immolation wasn’t other-immolation — it would not be impossible to douse a guard with fuel, and take her or him with you. But there’s no guarantee that resistance won’t be turned outwards. At some point, Australia may have to acknowledge a crisis that requires the military to be sent in — at that point, the fiction of Nauru’s sovereignty will be abolished entirely.
In the meantime, we should take comfort in the fact that, though we can’t get a decently “agile” post-mining economy active, we are dab hands at the creation of an earthly Hell — if by Hell we mean the total separation of hope, meaning and the possibility of happiness, from the brute biological/existential life force that keeps one going on.
For by any reasoning, that it was hell is: the presence of a Will to live, with the absence of any possibility that life will have meaning. Hell, whether it’s US solitary confinement, or the West Bank, or a Chinese factory, or Nauru, works its way by confronting the inmate with the torment of continuing to exist, as nothing other than a mute will to live. In such circumstances, suicide, with optional homicide attached, is a ticket out of hell, not into it. How many thousands of lives have to be subject to that regime, to save other lives only potentially at risk, before the policy has lost the last figments of its morality remains to be seen. But we will find out, I guess — that and a lot more besides is going to be thrown into the pyre.