Grief, stolen children and SIEV 221

SIEV 221 – small coffins – Sam Mooy (The Australian)

The controversy over the burial of the dead of SIEV 221 still seems to have the aura of an event that everyone agrees not to speak of ever again. Some things in life, Scott Morrison’s outrage at the SIEV 221 funerals being one of them, are just too creepy to keep talking about. For a moment it seemed as though Morrison had weirded out most of the country with his astounding statements. Even the media, never shy of a lurid headline, struggled with that one.

Likewise it was difficult to find words to describe the ham-fisted actions of DIMIA, furtively shuttling traumatised orphans around the country in order to satisfy byzantine bureaucratic procedures and maintain a fog of secrecy around the funerals, distressed children being such a threat to national security and all. ‘Heart-rending’ was the adjective I heard used most frequently. ‘Stupid, brutal, cruel and callous’ would be my own descriptors of choice. Scott Morrison’s comments marked a new low in Australian politics, down there with the Howard government’s response to SIEV-X, SIEV 4 and the Tampa, and maybe in hindsight they might be something of a turning point. All of a sudden, demonising asylum seekers doesn’t seem such a politically attractive option. Perhaps it’s starting to lose a little traction. Perhaps. Following Morrison’s outburst, one I assume he thought would be greeted with rapturous applause, it was oddly enough Joe Hockey who stepped up to say ‘Shut up dickhead’, not the lurking Tony Abbott. Unbelievably things got even creepier a couple of days later when the unsettling figure of Cory Bernardi leaped out of the shadows of parliamentary-secretaryship foaming incoherently about Islam, and sounding so deranged that even Abbott had to flee from him.

All this bizarre and disturbing behaviour seemed to be triggered by the fact that the horrible tragedy played out right before our eyes, one in which we could clearly see the suffering and grief of refugees, and was unmediated by military intervention, racist xenophobia and political spin. This seemed to be what made Morrison and Bernardi so furious I think, and so frightened.

Grief and loss are experiences we have historically learned to keep our distance from, experiences that are usually stage-managed for us very quickly. Think of the Black Saturday bushfires, or any other disaster of recent times. After the fires came the clod-hopping leering media all at sea amongst so much devastation, filming anything that had burned. When that got boring, then came the stories of triumph, the miraculous escapes, the we-shall-rise-even-stronger speeches, and finally the fundraising rock concert to round everything off in a paroxysm of nationalistic pride. There’s something of John Howard’s black armband attitude about it all, that to acknowledge grief whether caused by unstoppable disaster or by criminal acts is somehow morally despicable. Let’s not spoil our beautiful minds with all that stuff, to paraphrase Barbara Bush.

Grief and loss are the ordinary things, the unthinkable experiences we all have to face sooner or later, as everything we love disappears. But there are griefs wired into the armature of our history, griefs that inhabit our systems of political thought and action. The grief of the Stolen Generations or the children known as the Forgotten Australians, the grief of children brutalised beyond our imagining not by random lunatics or by natural catastrophe but by dedicated systems of structural violence, is a grief we have preferred to bury. It’s always children and those who care for them who have historically borne the brunt of our political cruelty, and it seems that we still cannot think about that, acknowledge that the grief of children is concreted into the foundations of our nation state. You’d think we would be experts on grief by now, and we would be if we had any kind of honesty in the way we approach our politics. Yet, we know so little. Our ignorance of grief is vast. When it reappears we seem to have no idea what we are facing.

But when it comes upon us in our ordinary lives, we are in the middle of an experience that has been common to so many in this ravaged nation. From the moment they arrived, what did the colonists do but inflict grief? Welcome, we might say to the grieving, welcome to the Nation of Grief; it has a history that is inseparable from what we have made on this weird island continent and who we have become.

The desperate denial of the experience of the grieving, as the grief of the Stolen Generations was so long denied, is one of the intolerable burdens the grieving have to carry. It is the manic denial of their experience by others that reminds the grieving that that they are somewhere that everyone else prefers to ignore. As though these terrible events are not happening in the real world, when in fact they happen all the time, everywhere, and the brittle lens of consumer happiness that covers the world we are presented with, the world we all strive for with so much energy and persistence is the mask that seeks to contain by its tensioned brutality the ocean of suffering that fills the history of the world.

The grieving may be fortunate enough to have some exchange with a genuinely kind person, a person who in his or her heart is some kind of mundane poet of impermanence. More often than not, it may be someone unexpected as such people are few and do not advertise. After all it can be dangerous to show kindness to the brutalised and ignored, to the orphaned refugees, to the stolen children. A genuine kindness of the heart has a ruined and expansive depth to it that the shininess of our consumer paradise cannot recognise or represent and has historically attempted to silence as completely as possible. Perhaps in every CBD, in every city and every town we need pictures and stories of the stolen children.

When SIEV 221 went down, ordinary people were first on the scene, not the armed forces. No-one could shout that ‘boat-people’ deliberately threw their own children into the sea. No-one could pompously declaim that we would decide whether they could come here or not. They were already here and a lot of them were dead. But like the children of the Stolen Generations, attempts were made to consign the dead and the orphaned children of SIEV 221 to a place where grief is not allowed to exist, where they do not even need to be remembered because they didn’t matter in the first place, except as objects onto which we can dump all the things we don’t know how to acknowledge – our hatreds, our paranoid fantasies of destruction, our demonising of the things we’d prefer not to think about, the things we try to keep well away from our beautiful minds.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright currently lives on unceded Anaiwan country. He is the author of A Second Life (Brio) and various essays.

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  1. Thanks Stephen, for reminding us about something we should not forget in the first place.

    Sometimes I think that although we find endless ways of distracting ourselves from thinking about an unjust and often cruel world, the sorrow of it lurks deep within ultimately expressing itself in the depression and dysfunction we see all around us.

  2. Hi Trish and Clare
    While I was writing this I was thinking about Stephanie Convery’s review of Malouf’s essay on happiness and thinking about how problematic it was (Malouf’s essay not Stephanie’s review)in the sense that much of what we think of as a ‘pursuit of happiness’ (why is happiness always pursued?)is in fact a way of defending ourselves against what we see as the intolerable anxiety of thinking about things like stolen children.

  3. yes, well, without getting too hairshirty about it, all I can think of are Orwell’s words, from memory (I think from Lear, Tolstoy etc) “Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering and only a fool would say otherwise.” But while our weird capital systems deny these basic realities, the dispossessed get to carry the grief no-one else wants to. When Rudd met members of the Stolen Generations at Parliament House, he was of course speaking to elderly people.But it was the grief of five year olds that was being acknowledged, that was so transparently on display.

  4. Thanks Stephen. Tony Kevin and others worked hard to get to the facts and tell the stories of the 353 dead from SIEV X in a Certain Maritime Incident (CMI). Of course it wasn’t an incident it was a horrific tragedy like SIEV 221. Like others seeking asylum the official directive was don’t show ‘any humanising characteristics’ of the asylum seekers. The idea being they are to remain invisible with no one to grieve for them.

  5. Yes, I think that was clear in DIMIA’s treatment of the children at the funerals, that not only must DIMIA not allow any humanising characteristics to be made manifest, but that to do so would actually be threatening to the existing political order. Howard for example, was clearly frightened of asylum seekers and of indigenous people and what he thought they represented. The half-century old grief of children was obviously something that provoked in him paroxysms of rage.
    I was thinking on my speculation that publicly demonising refugees might have run out of a bit of political steam, at least temporarily, and wondering where that demonising attitude might now express itself, for Gillard especially. I think the answer is anyone on a Centrelink benefit and it has become clear over the past few days that both the Liberals and the ALP will strive to outdo each other in the rabidness of their invective and the scale of their punitive sanctions.

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