The state needs monsters in order to justify its existence. By ‘monster’ I mean a person, group or issue that is a target of government policies with the aim of destroying it in one form or another. Often the threat is exaggerated, the target dehumanised and demonised, and mainstream debate on the issue is oversimplified to one between good and evil. The monster figure is as essential as the borders the state uses to define itself, with the borders also serving as a way to keep out monsters. In Australia’s case, our vast northern coastline serves as a barrier. The state then needs hyper-masculine figures for protection and to exert violence when necessary. Operation Sovereign Borders, through the use of the navy, fulfils this role. And the monsters? People smugglers are a big one, but anything to do with asylum seekers who arrive by boat usually counts.
Things get interesting when the symbiotic relationship between the state and its enemies leads to situations which are mutually beneficial. Quite often it is the poor and miserable human beings caught in the middle who suffer the worst fate. And that brings us to the allegations last month (already a fading memory in the mainstream media) that Australian officials paid people smugglers to take asylum seekers back to Indonesia. If the claims were true, it should have meant supporters of Operation Sovereign Borders would need to employ some serious doublethink in order to continue claiming it’s all about ‘saving lives’ while denying it is all designed for internal political consumption. Unfortunately, through a combination of selective amnesia, the pathetically weak state of investigative journalism from the mainstream media, and an opposition party so fearful of opposition they actually just adopted their own boat turn-back policy, this story has been forgotten even though it’s only a month old.
Tony Abbott’s claim that his government has stopped the boats, while keeping most information surrounding the issue very secretive, is dubious enough at a time in which global refugee numbers are reaching record levels. When presented with these claims, Abbott could have denied them. It is not a matter of operational security to say something that did not happen did not happen. A failure to deny the allegations is not an admission, but it comes pretty close to one. Consider the following statement by Abbott:
The most moral thing you can do here is stop the boats, because as long as the boats are coming, the evil people-smuggling trade is in business and the deaths continue.
If the allegations are true and it is now acceptable policy to pay people smugglers to turn around, the level of hypocrisy would be almost humorous if not for the human misery involved. Abbott does not like people smugglers, he has made that pretty clear, yet here he is unable to deny helping to fund the trade. How do you destroy an evil trade by paying members of that trade to do the exact thing you are telling the Australian people you have successfully stopped them doing? Giving global media exposure to the possibility that Australia will pay people smugglers who turn up on our coastline creates a business incentive.
Whenever a government does something monstrous, or its citizens relish some horrible event, I think of Nietzsche’s quote:
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
That it is the state’s role to fight the monsters of the world seems to be the view of the political class, but they’ve failed to heed Nietzsche’s warning. The problem is even those of us who object to these actions are ultimately affected by them. We are the ones staring into the abyss of the horrible things done in our name: the detention centres, the deaths, the sexual, mental and physical abuse, the lives scarred and hopes ruined by successive governments’ inability to ignore the votes of the least among us – the narrow-minded, fearful, compassionless and xenophobic. The abyss is staring back at us. It has been for some time. Each lurch toward a crueller policy response normalises something that was once horrible in the past. And something in us changes too. We might still disagree with the policies, but we are becoming desensitised.
There is a history to this sort of state-sponsored hypocrisy against vulnerable, stateless people. The same cruel attitude toward those in need of our help is also the kind that ultimately feeds the monsters the state sets out to destroy because it helps empower them. With this latest miserable development in Australia’s boat stopping saga it is timely to remember the plight of the St Louis during the lead up to the Second World War. As Jeff Sparrow discusses, state after state turned away the vessel full of Jewish refugees, and also indirectly helped bolster the position of a man who would create one of the worst chapters of modern history. And as Australia sets the example in a region full of refugees, how will other states react in the future? How much compassion and humanity will their policies contain? Maybe those abandoned camps and mass graves in Malaysia, apparently unnoticed until now, provide a hint as to the level of interest there is in stopping the people-smuggling trade. States always seem more interested in targeting the displaced and vulnerable once they are within grasp. It’s easier.
Through the eyes of the state, the refugee comes to be viewed as someone with nothing to offer, a financial burden and only worthy of contempt. Dictators, another type of monster that states often argue must be destroyed, seem to rank higher. Indeed, they can be useful for hindering the movements of refugees. Part-time monster and sometime ally Muammar Gaddafi used the threat of Libyan-based people-smuggling networks as a political leverage against Europe. It seems the European states saw this as an opportunity to turn a threat into something more mutually beneficial, and Libya received $5 billion US dollars from Italy to actively stop people-smuggling activities from the Libyan coastline.
Five years after it decided that Gaddafi was, after all, a monster that required removal, Libya is a fractured state in the midst of a civil war. 1800 people have died crossing the Mediterranean for European shores in 2015 alone. And now the solution offered up by the EU is to use military force against Libya’s people smuggling networks. If the EU is seriously considering air strikes against boats that may be used to carry refugees to Europe we may simply be one catastrophic fuck-up – one accidental strike on a boat that looked empty but wasn’t – away from Orwell’s ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean in Nineteen Eighty Four. If this sounds impossible, remember: Nato has done similar things before.
The line that Operation Sovereign Borders is about saving lives never really stood up to any serious scrutiny. Since even Tony Abbott cannot deny that people smugglers may have been paid to take asylum seekers back to Indonesia, it is exposed for the perverted political game that it is: the treatment some of the most vulnerable among us in increasingly horrible ways for political gain. So who are the monsters after all? Our own governments are – and by extension, so are we.
Now that Labor has adopted the Liberal party’s position of turning back asylum seeker boats at sea, Australia can congratulate itself on having both a government and opposition party that have one of the most extreme positions on immigration of any Western government. So do we simply accept that we are all monsters now? There are loud, strong voices of resistance toward the downward spiral of banal indifference – we resist the best way we know how, in whatever way we are capable, in order to express disagreement toward the inhumane gaze of the current state of politics. But is it enough? The best hope is that, through the boundary-dissolving abilities and unprecedented amount of information available to us through the internet, societies can increasingly stop living in fear of monsters. Empathy for others is always in short supply when the culture of fear dominates the mind.\
Image: John Englart / Flickr