Protesters in Hyde Park, Sydney. (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Were it happening in a movie, in an ant farm, on another planet, one could step back from Australia’s quarter-century history of mandatory detention and watch the ceaseless mutations of the policy with intellectual interest. There’s no solid direction to it. What’s considered unspeakably cruel now was considered standard practice back then; what we are now doing routinely, was out of bounds a decade or so ago.

Refugees could be traduced as a bunch of people who didn’t love their children, in 2001. But it was agreed they shouldn’t be allowed to just die in our camps. Now, in a more globalised era the racial discourse has largely gone. But the system, and much of the population, is indifferent to the fact that the camps have now become enablers and fomentors of suicide.

Since the re-election of the Morrison government, there has been a wave of suicide and suicide attempts on Manus Island — up to as many as 30, according to Behrouz Boochani. The overstretched local hospital has started turning away such cases, in part because suicide-attempts are being shunted to them by an Australian government-funded hospital, which gets $21 million a year. The situation has become so bad that the PNG government has sent in an elite paramilitary squad…

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Because that’s what you do when people are trying to kill themselves, send in the troops. This is, in some ways, a continuation of the methods of the NT Intervention: respond to social distress with military containment, the distress of the inner person taken as a threat to external public order. 

Thirty attempts — two of them have apparently been successful — is 6% of the 500 prisoners there. For every actual attempt there will be several holding themselves back from such by an act of will. Clearly, though few would have been under any illusions about what a Shorten government would offer, the prisoners could at least have expected some willingness to find some deals that would get some of them out — and thus offer some hope that such a nightmare would end.

That’s precisely what won’t happen now. Despair is the weapon of choice of the Coalition’s management of the camps, something that they have refined and cultivated over years. Whatever Labor’s symbolic, hypocritical, cowardly approach to mandatory detention, its default secular humanist ethic doesn’t really run to such a thing. By contrast, the Coalition’s bourgeois Christianity is perfectly suited to the task. Professed in varying forms by numerous members of the Coalition, it serves to affirm the believer’s ego as a good person, and shield them from ethical self-challenge. With this triad in place — bourgeois-moralism, national security, and despair as a weapon — the system can repeat itself indefinitely.

Like others, I’ve written on this topic so many times before (and been on the marches, and the vigils, though less than many have). But we have to keep talking about this, organising against it, bearing witness to it. Should you ever have wondered what it was like to live in a society that practises the everyday barbarism of lethal camps, well here it is and here you are. This is how it happens. A story rears up in the media, a new horror, circles for a couple of days, and then disappears. The everyday demands of existence, and then the whole thing disappears again.

The relentless cruelty is finely calibrated, to keep things below the level of uncontrollable outrage. Thus, we reached a pitch prior to the voting-up of the medivac bill. But if that is now removed, a similar wave of reaction will be hard to create to that particular reverse. The system can continue to refine itself to a perfect sadistic middle, projected indefinitely into the future.

What can now serve as an interruption? The protests must continue, though they now do nothing but bear witness. The direct actions have to continue, though they appear to have petered out somewhat. A stronger connection between Indigenous incarceration and the refugee detention — the laws sweeping up Indigenous people amount to, like refugee detention, the criminalisation of existence — has to be made.

Perhaps at this point, some protest/statement by a number of faith leaders with some secular-ethical notables, would serve to focus attention on the particular horror going on now. The hypocrisy of bourgeois Christianity is not the same as indifference, or non-recognition. There are points where ethical pressure might be applied. The torture point of Manus Island is not the thumbs or the genitals, or the body at all, but the soul.

The recognition of the depth of each human being has been weaponised and reversed out into the manufacture of hell. One can only do that by repressing the knowledge of what one is doing. Maybe it’s a naive suggestion, maybe it’s not. But we have to keep trying, not least to stop this horror show from receding in our own minds, as if it were in a movie, or something happening somewhere else.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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