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.
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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.