December 1972. Edward Gough Whitlam is elected as Australia’s first Labor prime minister in twenty-three years. In the United States, the Watergate scandal is smouldering, and former president Harry Truman, the man responsible for the 1945 nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dies aged eighty-eight.
It’s also the month of Apollo 17, the final NASA mission to the moon. The two astronauts who land on the surface, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, busy themselves collecting various soil and rock samples, driving around in a lunar rover and setting off explosives for a ‘seismic profiling experiment’. They depart after three days, leaving only footprints and the assorted detritus of six human sojourns as evidence of humanity’s presence there.
The most memorable artefact from Apollo 17 has nothing to do with the moon landing itself. It is a photograph, taken about five hours after launch from a height of 45,000 kilometres: the first and only whole-globe image captured by a person in orbit. This remarkable travel snap gave humanity its most comprehensive self-portrait yet – an all-encompassing vision of our collective home, framed against the eternal dark of space.
By chance, the photograph depicts the side of the globe dominated by the Atlantic and Indian oceans, with Antarctica at the very bottom, Africa and the Middle East near the centre, and the southern Mediterranean and Indian subcontinent just visible on the horizon. There is no United Kingdom, no greater Europe, no United States, no Australia. All that can be seen, as far as the contemporary socio-
political climate is concerned, is a heat-threatened South Pole, a combat- and famine-troubled Africa, and a crisis-worn part of Asia. With the exception perhaps of Israel and part of South Africa, those who call themselves ‘the West’ are absent from this perspective – axis tilted to winter (Europe), spun into night (Australia), or both (North America).
Over four decades later, the planet revealed in the Apollo 17 image would, if seen from a similar position, appear unchanged: a remote blue marble decorated by swirls of white cloud, with only a few patches of dull orange to designate land. Earthquakes and eruptions have racked the surface over the ensuing years, and tempests and tsunamis have pummelled it – but in a period that counts as no more than a cosmological blink, the basic shapes and colours are largely as they were.
Nor at ground level has much altered. The human population has doubled, not that evidence of our presence could be discerned even from relatively nearby in space. Notwithstanding innumerable achievements in the arts and sciences, Earth’s inhabitants have – in the forty-plus years since the final journey to the moon – stumbled backwards into the future, seemingly always on the cusp of social or political transformation yet perpetually mired in crisis. The net result amounts to little more than a reiteration of the Prince’s notorious creed from Giuseppe Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard): ‘Change everything just a little so as to keep everything exactly the same.’
Today, the wealthiest of us continue to evolve into ‘better’, more extravagant, more complacent lives: every person possessing the latest electronic device, every adult owning a car, every occupant of every home having their own private bathroom. Meanwhile, hundreds of ships, thousands of aircraft and millions of motor vehicles belch back and forth across the globe, adding to the immense cloud of carbon that symbolises the communal dream of incessant economic growth and more thrilling leisure experiences.
And then there is the killing. Always the killing …
George Orwell, in his 1938 book Homage to Catalonia, prophetically warned of his homeland ‘sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the sound of bombs’. The barely fathomable horrors of the Second World War ensued, but in the developed world the essential pattern has not altered. As long as war continues to stay sufficiently distant – as the Second World War largely did for the United States and Australia – the ceaseless array of human-perpetuated atrocities leads only to transient stabs of shock. Recovery comes quickly as the news cycle rolls on and focus shifts to the next political spat, or stock-market fluctuation, or celebrity scandal. Unless, that is, you or someone you know has the misfortune of becoming a victim.
For less privileged parts of the world, recent decades have seen death and disaster become the norm. Think of just some of those nations portrayed in the Apollo 17 image. Toward the bottom is Rwanda, in the 1990s torn apart by one of the worst genocides in human history. Further up and to the right, in the horn of Africa, is Somalia, atrophied by decades of civil war and now one of the poorest and most volatile countries on the planet. Just across the Gulf of Aden lies Yemen – wrought by political instability and violence, it is one of the dozen countries the Australian government currently advises its citizens to avoid (even as it helps fund militants in the region). Nearby is Iraq, scene of incessant conflict, where, as with neighbouring Syria, the remaining inhabitants are trapped in a crucible of nightmares, while most who manage to escape become stateless nomads. And at the top right is Afghanistan, seemingly doomed to be the ragged political football of the world.
Since the era of the NASA moon missions, civil conflicts and mass slaughters consistently have befallen those zones represented in the Apollo 17 photograph. It’s paradoxical then that the defining horror of the period – by far the most visible in terms of press coverage and political consequence – actually took place on the other side of the planet, in the midst of what most see as the prototype of a successful modern civilisation.
For Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, it was through everyday language that the enormity of the Nazi death camps – a disaster some believed by dint of its sheer magnitude to be ineffable – could be recorded and understood. The idea of the invisible becoming visible for all time suggests one method of conceptualising horror in the present era – signal events through which the most abject, most deadly contrivances of a supposedly enlightened world are implanted into collective memory. Cambodia’s ‘Year Zero’; the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; the Darfur conflict and associated genocide in Sudan; the 2010 earthquake and subsequent humanitarian crisis in Haiti: these are among the recent nightmares from which humanity cannot wake, no matter how hard it tries, no matter how often history outdoes itself with catastrophes of even greater magnitude. But the overriding sense evoked by these events is not of conspicuousness but rather of concealment; such tragedies remain relatively obscure in the developed world. By contrast, the idea of perennial visibility resonates powerfully with the most talked about, most observed disaster ever: the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The horrors of that day were rendered discernible for all time via a filmic record manifested (retrospectively) in several discrete stages. First there was the mundane security camera footage of the hijackers boarding their flights. Next came the immediate prologue, the glint and roar of a malevolent plane inadvertently captured by a documentary film crew. Finally, the unfolding of the event itself, only later recognised as a well-orchestrated calamity: the explosion of the first missile seen fleetingly; the second impact unmissable as millions of eyes and a multitude of lenses honed in on the plane’s unwavering progress; the shattering dénouement of the second tower slumping to the ground, as if overwhelmed by the dust and smoke rising from the remnants of the first.
And then there were the falling bodies, that dreadful rain set against a sublime azure sky. Those 200 or so people – later (dubiously) termed ‘jumpers’ – assured beyond doubt that this disaster would outrank all in the communal memory. Within the doomed planes and towers huddled thousands of individuals experiencing their final moments, many fully aware of the fate that was about to envelop them, yet even in the context of such a live media event, the onlooking world could only imagine how the end arrived for those unfortunates. But the jumpers, by being forced out of the towers by smoke and heat, made the unimaginable forever plausible to those looking on. In the hierarchy of mortality that the attacks created – modest fire fighters; gallant flight crew; stoic passengers recording final messages to loved ones; shadowy hijackers transmitting demands in broken English – the jumpers became unwitting lead actors in the greatest spectacle of all time, the only truly visible victims of a disaster from which the world could not look away.
Early reports out of the US spoke of a populace demanding retribution, with the overwhelming majority willing to follow their leader into war. America’s allies were quick to join the call for a swift and brutal response. The Spectator rushed to laud the liberal democratic power and prosperity of the US in the face of ‘rouge states’ and ‘Muslim hotheads’; in Australia, right-wing agitators recklessly stoked the flames by conflating Islam with evil, refugees with terrorism and multiculturalism with social disarray.
The ensuing military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, undertaken by the so-called Coalition of the Willing, ensured that the most iconic disaster of the new century would linger on interminably in its revenge phase. Both are, of course, disasters in their own right. Calling them ‘wars’ was a rhetorical manoeuvre, one that drew on outdated notions of righteousness and victory and finality to foreclose the possibility of opposition. Narratives of just and reasonable reprisals worked to conceal the torment of those living in the invaded countries, while also justifying extra-judicial imprisonment and torture. Sixteen years on, ubiquitous representations of 9/11 position it as the supreme disaster, one that trumps all others in any hierarchy of significance.
But what contrast might be made simply by rotating the planet around to again confront the scene from Apollo 17, selecting just one example of the umpteen catastrophes that have befallen that side of the world since 1972? Late in the evening of 2 December 1984, in the central Indian city of Bhopal, a ‘failure’ at the Union Carbide pesticide plant resulted in several tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas escaping from a storage tank. The lethal mist drifted furtively over the heavily populated areas surrounding the plant, descending upon unsuspecting residents and driving them from their homes in agony and panic. Many, uncertain of what was happening and with no emergency plan to follow, ran straight back into the toxic cloud. By daylight, thousands were dead or dying; thirty years later, the full human and economic toll is still contested.
On the face of it, 9/11 and Bhopal share many similarities. Both were, at heart, American disasters: the former an ostensibly foreign assault perpetrated on US soil; the latter a case of corporate homicide cultivated in the US but enacted on a faraway land. Each featured an egregious death toll: some 3,000 lives were lost on 9/11, and while Bhopal’s immediate fatality count commenced around a similar figure, the lingering effects led to as many as 20,000 deaths (official and unofficial estimates vary greatly). Both also morphed into long-running pursuits of justice: the Americans stumbling after the inscrutable Osama bin Laden; the Indians battling against the elusive Union Carbide (a cause not helped when it was absorbed by Dow Chemical Company in 2001, at which point the new owners washed their hands of a malfunction that occurred ‘in a factory they never operated in a place they have never been’).
The comparisons end there. Bhopal took place in the middle of the night: a dark disaster with no contemporaneous filmic record to corroborate its horrors. And where 9/11 triggered an ever-expanding global hunt for criminals who were both integral (bin Laden) and unconnected (Saddam Hussein), Bhopal saw a multinational corporation conspire with the US government to evade justice: each attempt to extradite former Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson to India was forestalled by US authorities. Followed by cameras and stalked by helicopters, 9/11 instantly became a global spectacle, one that has only increased in visibility in the years since; Bhopal, despite its international resonances, becomes more opaque over time, with ongoing health and justice issues receiving little media attention outside of India.
The world has been furnished with abundant texts and images that personify the victims of 9/11, while the dead and disabled of Bhopal stay essentially faceless, nameless. In 1996, Suketu Mehta of the Village Voice reported that Union Carbide’s head of public relations could not recall a single name or distinguishing feature of any of the victims. Those who died in the daylight attacks on America will (rightly) never be forgotten; Bhopal’s casualties, both the living and the dead, cry out in the dark for recognition.
In the 1980s, French scholar Michel de Certeau wrote of New York as seen from the summit of the World Trade Centre, of being elevated to a place from where ‘the bewitching world by which one was “possessed” [is transformed] into a text that lies before one’s eyes’. Ironically, while the twin towers no longer exist (a casualty of disaster) and the abandoned Bhopal plant continues to stand (a rusting, infected monument to disaster), in truth it’s the former that will never disappear. Its fall constituted but a transfer of voyeuristic position – from a place to look down from to one forever gazed upon.
Guided by a profit-driven media and the affirmations of its politicians, modern society chooses which catastrophes persist in the public memory and which, through ignorance and trivialisation, are forgotten. These decisions are based upon an intertwining of cultural insularity (we only care if it’s happening to us) and the capitalistic imperatives of the press (the assumption that its audience will only tune in to events that affect them, or people like them). Judith Butler notes how depictions of disaster are framed in such a way that only certain lives are recognisable as ‘grievable’; horrors involving outsiders are shifted to the fringes, their existences made remote and thus their deaths unremarkable. Ultimately, the remembering of any disaster is almost entirely predicated upon the risk of its malevolence drifting, like the toxic vapour from the Union Carbide factory, in our own direction.
The most prominent recent terrorist incident in the West, the November 2015 Paris attacks – like its predecessors, 9/11, the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2005 London bombings – engendered a predictable set of responses. Politicians and commentators rallied to fortify national security through advanced surveillance techniques and hard-hitting anti-terror laws. Rampant jingoism, exercised under the guise of national unity, manifested in the hoisting of flags, the singing of anthems and the thunder of conservative voices hailing the moral supremacy of Christian civilisation.
The default position becomes more of the same. There are calls for bombing campaigns, drone strikes and ground troops, a response that is presented as the only viable solution to a savage enemy. At home, there are moves towards harsher laws and reduced civil liberties.
These standard responses, which over many decades have proven largely incapable of improving the safety of populations in either the West or the East, are characteristic of the class responsible for implementing them: white, privileged, power-driven men. Modern-day disaster is not only processed through Western eyes; it is also instigated and prolonged through dominant masculinised traits of antagonism, violence and revenge. One result is that no contrition is shown for retaliatory war crimes or gross errors of judgement (the 2015 bombing by US forces of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, being but one example). Belligerence usurps conciliation, and the welfare of the ascendant culture is assumed paramount (so, for instance, the recent Ebola emergency was considered ‘under control’ as long as it was confined to the African continent).
At the same time, media language reflects an utter inability to escape the kind of flawed ideology that dragged the US and its allies deeper into post-9/11 trauma in the first place. Just after Paris 2015, The Australian ran a banner headline that read ‘War Declared on Islamists by West’, as near an exhortation of war on Islam as makes no difference. The unifying idea, as anarchist writer George Bradford puts it, that ‘we all live in Bhopal’ is dismissed in the rush to pursue a limited, localised brand of fellowship. The media-driven dialogue of terror and calamity instead tends toward the maintaining of a hierarchy in which the significance of any tragedy is directly proportional to the extent that it involves ourselves and not others.
One might think Australia, beleaguered by flood, fire and drought, has the potential for a more enlightened approach to unfolding disaster. Our island continent is absent from the Apollo 17 image, but one still gets a strong sense of our geographic isolation. The vast Indian Ocean protecting our north-western flank, just out of sight to the right of the frame, dominates this view, and it’s easy to conjure up the even greater Pacific Ocean buffering Australia’s coastline to the north-east. Nevertheless, those immense natural borders have not stopped us from becoming enmeshed in global and regional conflicts or imperialist endeavours.
To achieve this, it has become necessary to focus the bulk of our doctrinal bluster upon the small percentage of the world’s refugees who drift south in search of asylum. While most are victims of disasters that Australia baulks at acknowledging in the first place, even when our government has been complicit in their making, they are automatically given the epithet ‘illegals’ so as to obliterate their legitimacy as human beings. These unfortunate asylum seekers then find themselves herded into detention centres far removed from the local population. Their subsequent plight (and Australia’s shameful policy) is most eloquently illuminated in Dorothy Hewett’s poem ‘Asylum’: ‘they brought you to the big gates / they swallowed you up / deprived of everything / you lived but you were nothing / you were never seen or heard from again’.
Nor has Australia positioned itself any differently in responding to the biggest threat of all: anthropogenic climate change. With one MP labelling environmental activists ‘terrorists’ and others actively demonising renewable energy at every turn, Australia’s political class appears determined to shift the blame for this impending calamity to anywhere else but here. This insular attitude is summed up in words of another great poet of the land, Judith Wright: ‘we are conquerors and self-poisoners / more than scorpion or snake / and dying of the venoms that we make’.
In the new century, catastrophes pile up around us like bodies in some inexorably unfolding genocide. Yet consider that from the cosmologically miniscule distance of 45,000 kilometres, it would be impossible to comprehend how regularly disaster visits the planet, or how much blood is spilt in the name of political and religious hatred. From out there, no-one could distinguish the multitude of obdurate ideologies at the heart of so much human suffering. No-one could grasp the manner in which those visible land masses have been divided up using arbitrary borders defended with all available military might. Nor could anyone looking down from space know that there are close to one billion weapons wielded by those negligible earthlings, or hear the shots being fired, or see the myriad bodies fallen upon the ground. One could not detect any of the one-hundred-million-plus land mines, nor identify any of the sundry munitions factories that produce them, just as one could not see any of the pending victims, many children, whose fate is to one day be blown apart. And from far above the clouds it would not be possible to understand the increasing extent of human inequality, nor to differentiate between affluent and poverty-stricken parts of the globe.
Andreas Huyssen argues that ‘the struggle for memory is ultimately also a struggle for history and against high-tech amnesia’. In our present culture of incessant attempts at communal remembering, there invariably arises a dialectical forgetting. So what will become of a society unable to recognise extreme suffering beyond its own blinkered, self-reverent gaze? Does the hierarchy of disaster, whereby the trauma of others stays largely invisible, suggest we are condemned forever to repeat the mistakes from which most human-made catastrophes have to date evolved? Are we to be forever heedless of the interrelatedness of horror? Are we oblivious to the clear inference that tragic events connect back to decisions made as a society, whether it be the link between global warming and natural disasters, between lax gun laws and innumerable shooting massacres, or between a policy decision concerning a faraway nation and a subsequent terrorist attack on our own doorstep?
In 1990, the Voyager I spacecraft – launched in 1977 to explore the outer planets of our solar system – was six billion kilometres away when its camera was reversed to provide one last view of home.
In the hazy impression that resulted, humanity – indistinguishable from halfway to the moon – becomes inconceivable; here the Earth is just a faint smudge of light against a background of perpetual night. In his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, responsible for orchestrating a backwards-looking photograph that many at the time believed unscientific and unnecessary, emphasised its philosophical value by observing that ‘every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam.’ Sagan’s words echo those of Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who noted that ‘From out there … international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch”.’
Taken from many thousands of times farther away than our moon, the Voyager I photo renders earthly war and catastrophe, and the hubris of those who perpetuate them, utterly incomprehensible. In the wake of the Holocaust, Theodor Adorno wrote that ‘perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream’. The hierarchy of disaster – buttressed by the deeply constraining idea that we need only empathise with those just like us – represents a denial of the suffering of those it suits us not to acknowledge, a blotting out of the screams we prefer not to hear. This is indefensible in the face of the Voyager I image, which verifies the extent of the universe, this planet’s trivial role in it and, ultimately, the shared seclusion of humanity.
The starting point to diminishing this hierarchy, and in turn confronting the ubiquity of disaster itself, must be an ethical recalibration on the part of Western governments. Those tasked with implementing social policy should set the moral standard by way of more non-isolationist programs; more aid directed by the wealthy towards the needy; a more humane approach to refugees; a stronger stance against racial- and gender-based subordination; a unified approach to reducing environmental vandalism; and finding better ways to address the ever-expanding gap between the sordidly rich few and the unacceptably poor many.
Human-made terror in all its manifestations is propagated through ideologies of self-preservation, exploitation and aggression. Valuing diplomacy, empathy, altruism and sustainability over those far more damaging traits will likely prove the only way to progress beyond the inexorability of disaster.
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