Sean Dorney, the ABC’s veteran Papua New Guinea correspondent, was on the radio this morning, after a return visit to Manus Island, where his wife’s people are from. Most likely a last visit too; Dorney has motor neurone disease, and he was bidding farewell. His assessment of the situation was a little bracing, because he was keen to defend the reputation and rights of the locals from the opprobrium the camps have generated, noting that the detainees are free to walk around, that some have set up a trading store, and that – to Fran Kelly’s mild intake of breath — there have been “incidents of shocking racism by Iranians towards some of the locals”.

There’s no reason not to believe it. Becoming an incarcerated refugee doesn’t necessarily make you a better person, even though the refugee has become the new “subject of history”, replacing the workers, with their annoying habit of embourgeoisification. Anti-black racism is a global phenomenon. Furthermore, many local inhabitants of Manus are so desperately poor that they resent the meagre allowances and goods the detained refugees receive.

This possibly unwelcome reminder of the complexities of any situation comes at the same time as Nauru – seen for a while as less awful than Manus – reveals its true character, with teen, and pre-teen children becoming suicidal from despair, and smaller children suffering from “resignation syndrome”, of a sort usually only seen in situations of total war. As with Manus, the situation presented to us as benign – incarcerated refugees are “free” to move about the island – is anything but. And the greatest threat to the health of refugees remains the refusal of the authorities to transport sick people to Australia for essential medical care.

What the hell have we created on Manus and Nauru? What are these things? They’re some sort of combination of Devil’s Island and a British Boer-war era concentration camp. Having abandoned manufacturing, we have put all our energy for innovation into the containment and psychological cowing of human beings. We invent whole new forms of managed, bureaucratised human cruelty, and then we export them to Europe and other border zones. We should charge a royalty every time some Africans drown off Lampedusa.

The interesting thing is that even though Europeans will actually, very deliberately, let people drown at sea, they cannot bring themselves to apply the slow application of despair that we have now calibrated, benchmarked and KPI’ed into standard operating procedure.

The US horrifies the world by removing very small children from their parents as a state strategy of emotional terrorism, to deter undocumented families from making the crossing. We react with the same horror, before reminding ourselves what we do, then wonder if the Trump administration’s policy is not even crueler at some very basic level. Then we hear news that someone on Nauru is being allowed to go blind from an easily treatable condition, and we start all over again.

Concentration camps were once about ethnic cleansing, with a side order of cruelty. Now, the numbers are smaller, the privations ostensibly lesser, but the explicit cruelty and sadism has come to the fore, and been implanted at the centre of the process. Moral philosophy 101 students used to be presented with utilitarianism as a philosophy and then asked whether the torture of one child could be morally justified, if it made people happy, and increased the overall quanta of “good”.

One rejection of that question was that it created abstract, fictional conundrums to test moral philosophies applied to the real world. But now we actually do it, we actually goddam do it. The torture and deprivation of a small number of people is being used to calm a continent-island nation-state, mostly European-descended, ostensibly prosperous, but living in one of the most anxious and atomised societies on Earth, with one eye on the relentless rise of China.

When you are willing to let someone go blind slowly, a child to starve themself to death in protest and trauma, then your camp has become something other than a mere containment facility that happens to be cruel. It has become a laboratory for the exploration of human suffering, and its measured application by the state. Bizarrely, as the torturers – ordinary public servants and private security managers – devise ever new ways of making people suffer in a hands-off fashion, they round out a fuller idea of what it is to be human, and of what is owed to other humans in their capacity as humans.

That will ultimately be the way in which these cruelties are overcome, if they are. We are probably refining the techniques that will be used on our grandchildren, to subdue resistance. In the meantime, if the Coalition deliver us as an unelected prime minister, the current manager and political face of the system, then it will be political war from here until the election. One would almost welcome it, the phoney war over, the enemy visible, stark and unadorned, if the only other alternative to government was something other than state sadism’s loyal opposition.