So it is happening: the next stage in our offshore detention regime, in which a widespread indifference to how the 600 detainees on Manus Island live has been replaced by a widespread indifference to the idea that some of them might die, violently, or through untreated illness. Greens Senator Nick McKim has used the strongest language, accusing Immigration Minister Peter Dutton of being “racist … and fascist”.
There is more than a touch of Mussolini about the way that has gone down, across governments of both parties, the systematic creation of a group of people as “social enemies”, their penning in camps as non-citizens, and the shift by which their non-personhood becomes the guarantor of our citizenship; anything can be done to them, to make meaningful our rights and protections. Mussolini, yes, but this goes back before that, to British concentration camps against Zulus, Boers and others in the Boer War, Spanish camps in Cuba in the 1890s, French camps in Algeria in the 1830s. The detention camp is the mode by which the modern state guarantees itself.
In the current circumstances, created by Chairman Rudd’s too-clever-by-half manoeuvrings, the efficacy of the camp can be preserved, while a liberal denial of its authoritarian character maintained. Hence the latest twist: the camp itself closed down by law, the refugees transferred to new facilities to which the local population object — forcefully, to say the least. The final twist? The bestial right can turn around and say that you wanted the camp closed, and now it is. The lip-smacking glee with which they’re doing so, tells you that they are either corrupted, were always malign, deeply ignorant or all three.
The trick of it has always been to argue that Papua New Guinea — having courts to hand down decisions closing the camp, etc — is a thoroughly modernised society, and civil authorities will guarantee the refugees public safety. Of course it isn’t; it is a hybrid society, in which there is no neutral public space. It is criss-crossed with right, obligation and ownership amid a people who — inconvenient though true — preserve a greater role for violence in everyday human relations than neutralised, modernised societies. Essentially, by indifference, the modern state of Australia is subcontracting arbitrary violence to the hybrid modern-traditional society on Manus Island. Equally, that doesn’t mean that they are surrounded by “savages”, or that many local people will not be kind to them. The local people have had the economic inequality of Australia and PNG rubbed in their faces for years, which is why some are stripping the camp. But they are in a context in which the machete is an accessory.
Whatever is going to happen, we are going to see it happen on Twitter, in real time. Protesters are already occupying Border Force offices. The moral standard for illegal action is clearly met. Will the refugee groups put a general call-out to those of us willing to be arrested, in organised collective action? There is simply no alternative to doing so, when the death of innocents looms, in and out of camps we know about, happening now. It is not yet the final act, but it is getting chillingly closer.