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Bringing morality to a politics fight

This medivac bill is forcing a conversation about the purpose and logic of indefinite detention. But will the talk lead to real change?

medivac
Doctors and AMA representatives advocate for the medivac bill at Parliament House (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

This story discusses suicide.

Dr Paul Bauert cannot be said to have helped the cause of the asylum seeker medivac bill this week, when he suggested that people in Auschwitz were better off in some ways because they knew they were going to be gassed. The pediatrician was speaking as part of a delegation of medical professionals, who came to Canberra to try and stiffen Labor’s resolve on the bill.

Well, we know what Bauert means, quoting Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl, who was in Auschwitz, took from it the point that humans are meaning-seeking beings, and that notions of happiness, comfort and security cannot be separated from a framework of purposive meaningful existence.

Primo Levi, another Auschwitz survivor, made a related point in If This is a Man, noting that Communists, ultra-orthodox Jews, Christians and career criminals coped best — all having some theory of what was going on, and a way of acting.

Nevertheless, it’s a category error to suggest that the strength some gained from death’s inevitability in the camps makes the predicament of those on Nauru worse than Auschwitz. The objective act — indefinite detention versus mass extermination — has to be foremost. Otherwise all moral categories collapse. Nazi comparisons let the other side off the hook, since nothing was worse than the Holocaust as an act.

That is sadly ironic, in that what led to Bauert’s description was some attempt to communicate the misery and destructiveness of what we are doing to other human beings on Manus and Nauru.

As your correspondent has noted before, the trick of Manus and Nauru is to sadistically destroy people by attacking their higher human needs — for meaning, purpose, liberty, security — while claiming that no torture is occurring because their basic human needs for food and shelter are being met.

But the whole point of such higher sadism — not for potential boat-borne refugees, who have long since been dissuaded by turnbacks — is to be exemplary, for a largely imaginary Australian “silent majority”. This bloc broke up a while back, but they exist as a cipher in wars of position at the level of political contest and media commentary.

Medical attention is a sort of middle term in this. The prisoners get some first aid and medical inspection, but medical transfer for urgent attention is handed out grudgingly and capriciously. Mental heath assistance, or the treatment of mental health by evacuation, has been rare or non-existent.

That denial of care is crucial to what Manus and Nauru are. Their purpose is, and has been for some time, the destruction of selfhood in the inmates, the pulverisation of any capacity to maintain hope, purpose and meaning.

Primo Levi noted that even the most robust and resistant long-term inmate would succumb after three years, becoming a shell of a human being. Subsequent research has borne this out for all indefinite detention, lethal or otherwise. It’s the application of what psychologist Martin Seligman defined as the root of clinical depression “learned helplessness”.  

Such destruction of human beings saps a capacity to resist violently, but it does make suicide an option for those desperate for autonomy. People become convinced that, with one final act, they will end the suffering and anxiety of indeterminacy, reasserting a core of self that no one can take from them.

But that’s the final trick of the system. For the purpose of Manus and Nauru is to produce suicidality. That is now what the detention system wants and presumes; its deep logic. It’s the ultimate paradox of the medivac bill. Yes, everyone in the camps should be eligible for medivaccing out — adults and children — because they are all being taken to the edge of suicide and beyond.

That raises the question as to whether Manus and Nauru are not merely concentration camps — that cannot be seriously doubted — but death camps, soliciting the auto-destruction of their inmates.

No, not Auschwitz or Treblinka, but nevertheless now something with that orientation, with the running and purpose of the camps oriented to that end. Refusal of medical evacuation has caused death in the past and so in some sense the immigration minister is providing over death warrants.  

Should Labor amend the bill so that it loses all capacity to have medical care determined by medical professionals, it will simply have rejoined a commitment to that system. (Doubtless Ged Kearney will vote against any such amending: that’s what she promised the voters of Batman/Cooper, after all, didn’t she?).

Labor should either commit to the system fully and stop wasting our time — so that our commitment, as a nation, to the use of death as an instrument of border control is out there — or speak to the moral absolute that you don’t leave people to rot or despair into death.

As usual, they’ll probably amend the bill to pointlessness, but still be associated with the effort, thus losing both the political and moral point at the same time.

Lifeline can be reached on 13 11 14.

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Fairmind
Fairmind
1 year ago

Deeply disturbing analysis Guy – your best work I think.
As a long-term Labor voter, I am wounded by my own tacit support for utter cruelty almost beyond comprehension.
I have sent a link to my member Stephen Jones who I know is a caring individual – I hope he can help break this wicked impasse.

Richard Shortt
Richard Shortt
1 year ago

If cruel and inhumane action is your answer to a problem, you’ve lost. Period. We (society) already know that when you lock someone up and remove their freedom you become responsible for their well-being. We know people in prisons self harm, suffer (additional) psychological illnesses, and occasionally are prone to suicidal ideation and actions. Add to this mix the health dangers inherent in a tropical environment and you just increase the risk profile. The only antidote to these risks is meaningful, timely and capable intervention by medical professionals.

Dog's Breakfast
Dog's Breakfast
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Shortt

Yep.

Countryguy
Countryguy
1 year ago

Apart from the shocking actions of the Coalition on being so inhuman & compassion less, they are catering to a like minded part of the people here in Australia that have identical views, which makes me ashamed to be part of the country.

When Barrie Cassidy asked that hysterical Pyne on the Insiders if all the refugees were sick & would need medivacing to Australia, he was probably spot on.

The other disgusting thing about the Coalition is there is no one in the party that has the decency & the guts to speak up for fear of losing their nomination. So much for the broad church.

Deb C
Deb C
1 year ago
Reply to  Countryguy

I agree Countryguy and your final point especially deserves comment:
‘The other disgusting thing about the Coalition is there is no one in the party that has the decency & the guts to speak up for fear of losing their nomination. So much for the broad church.’

This ‘broad church’ is a myth: Howard decimated the party of its more left-leaning members from 1996 on, and since then the Liberal [sic] Party has been merely Right and Crazy 1950s Right – which ain’t ‘broad’ for my money.

Lovert
Lovert
1 year ago

We should all be very concerned, of course for the victims in the detention camps but also for all of us.

The government have shown how cruel and evil they are capable of being towards their fellow human beings. How willing they are to blatantly violate human rights and how void they are of any compassion or empathy.

We should all be concerned, because we are all human beings and it is evident that they are inhumane and have zero regard for their fellow humans. If they need to cause death and suffering to suit their ends, then they will do it.

Draco Houston
Draco Houston
1 year ago
Reply to  Lovert

Agreed. I think Grundle put it best when he said they were practicing what they’ll use on our grandchildren.

AR
AR
1 year ago
Reply to  Lovert

The standard that you walk by/vote for is the standard you accept.

Vasco
Vasco
1 year ago

Terrific work Guy. Gee, as a former RN, Ged Kearney better stick to her guns.

Monash University
Monash University
1 year ago
Reply to  Vasco

I presume we all understand that Kearney will do nothing of the sort. Even if Labor’s powers that be wanted to throw her a bone and improve her chances of reelection in May, I can’t imagine they’d ever let her vote against caucus’s decision. And I suspect she’d be too much of a careerist to be interested in doing so.

Anyhow, they’re probably pretty smugly confident that the Greens have well and truly destroyed their own chances of winning Cooper in the foreseeable future by now.