During this past week, Robert Manne gave a keynote address to the Integrity 20 Conference at Griffith University in which he tried to explain the purposeless cruelty of so much of Australia’s current asylum seeker system. Manne concluded by comparing the current situation to the ‘banality of evil’ famously described by Hannah Arendt in her reflections on her meetings with Adolf Eichmann published first in The New Yorker and subsequently in her report, Eichmann in Jerusalem:
A detailed moral history of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy since the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992 has not yet been written. What it would reveal is the process whereby the arteries of the nation gradually hardened; how as a nation we gradually lost the capacity to see the horror of what it was that we were willing to do to innocent fellow human beings who had fled in fear and sought our help.
Recently, an inmate on Nauru set himself on fire and died. Peter Dutton argued in response that people self-immolate so they can get to Australia. It took 30 years of brutal behaviour for a remark like this to be possible and for Australians not to notice how truly remarkable was the Minister’s brutality.
Our current uniquely harsh anti-asylum seeker policy is grounded in the absolutist ambitions that can, in my view, best be explained by Australia’s long term migration history and its associated culture of control. It has become entrenched because of the force of bureaucratic inertia that has seen the system grow automatically while any interest in, or understanding of, the relation of means to ends has been lost. And it is presently maintained by an irrational but consensual mindset that has Canberra in its grip: the conviction that even one concession to human kindness will send a message to the people smugglers and bring the whole system crashing down.
Because of these factors, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Immigration and the senior officials of Immigration and Defence are presently allowing the lives of some 2,000 human beings to be destroyed on the basis of faulty but unquestioned speculation, and of another 30,000 in Australia to be rendered acutely insecure and anxious for no purpose.
They are willing to allow this to happen because they no longer possess, in the Arendtian sense, the ability to see what it is that they are doing, and because the majority of the nation has become accustomed to thinking of what we are doing as perfectly normal.
Since this address, we learned today that this country’s heartless government, which has shown so little regard for the rule of law in so many areas, has sunk to a new and ‘necessary’ low, a plan to ‘introduce legislation to ban asylum seekers who arrive by boat from ever being allowed into Australia’.
… and I resist despairing.
I think about the ‘new absolutist ambition’ and the ‘reign of automaticity’ described by Manne, and I recall also words spoken by Dag Hammarskjöld at a luncheon with the UN press corps in July 1953. Responding to those offering ‘dark prophecies’ predicting the imminent death of the UN, Hammarskjöld said:
I have in mind all those who react instinctively against international ventures for the very same reason which makes them or their neighbors react unfavorably against people from other places. There are others who may recognize the need for an international approach to the problems of the world of today, but who have never really accepted the risks involved, and for that reason pull back the very moment the international sea gets rough … And I think also of those who have accepted the necessity of an international approach and the risks involved but who, when troubles start piling up, get scared and are reduced to defeatist passivity, despairing about the future as fright makes them blind to existing possibilities to overcome the immediate difficulties. Rereading the other day the French author Paul Valery, I found a phrase that in a very pointed way covers the attitudes to which I have referred. He talks about those who drown rather than swim under the conditions imposed by the water: ‘ceux qui préfèrent se noyer à nager dans les conditions de l’eau’ … It expresses the simple truth that, when trying to change our world, we have to face it as it is. Those are lost who dare not face the basic facts of international interdependence. Those are lost who permit defeats to scare them back to a starting point of narrow nationalism. Those are lost who are so scared by a defeat as to despair about the future. For all those, the dark prophecies may be justified. But not for those who do not permit themselves to be scared …
And I protest – with hundreds of letters, and dozens of petitions, and tens of thousands of others who march on this nation’s streets, and by breaking bread and wine and sharing it with strangers, and neighbours, and with people I don’t like very much. (I know of no better way of feeding the catholic vision of the only world that has a real future.)
And I confess my duplicity in the entire God damn machinery. And I confess other strange things with ancient words: ‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible …’.
And I welcome those who have made it through – regardless of which door they came by – and who desire to start life again. To be welcomed to country is a gift almost unmatched by any other. To be able to participate in and to extend that welcome is a risk I’m prepared to take until those who welcomed me to this their land instruct me otherwise.
And I vote – vote for those committed to walking another way, even if it is for ‘a protest candidate who will not win … [For] there comes a time when thinking people must give some indication for their children and their children’s children that the national conscience was not totally numbed by [government] rhetoric into supporting a policy that is evil, vicious and morally intolerable’ (Robert McAfee Brown).
And I pray: Kyrie Eleison. Bend arc, bend. Maranatha. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.