Self-immolation draws a response. The image of a monk robed in flame remains a symbol of the Vietnam War. Mohamed Bouazizi burned in an Tunisian street and lit up half the Middle East. Two people in a matter of days have set themselves on fire in Australian custody, in the abject corners of distant islands where we punish those so gauche as to arrive seeking asylum by the wrong mode of transport.
What is my country doing? Snagging a few scant hundreds of people in tent cities, cutting them off for years, because they came by sea to ask refuge. The cruellest joke is the false concern that justifies the abuse: we’re only doing this, say bigots smiling through their stage-tears, to stop the next lot perishing at sea.
While we vigilantly guard against drownings, people have been beaten to death by the guards we employed, died of basic illnesses for a lack of medicine, been attacked and abused with no protection or remedy, and killed themselves in despair. These are the headline cases above the thousands damaged by captivity, hurting their ability to contribute to whatever society they eventually rejoin.
So a man dies of burns; so a young woman lies in critical condition. The Immigration Minister, responsible for their care, says it is terribly sad and that refugee advocates are to blame. So cheap, these lives, flaring up like cheap sparklers, nothing but the occasion to score one more point in the game. Control the message. Hurt an opponent. The dead and the dying are Peter Dutton’s opposition, their silence a bit too loud for comfort. Here it is again, this bald statement of black as white. Cruelty is kindness, helpers are killers. We will deny the thing in front of our faces: that the conditions driving people to suicide are the cause of their suicide.
Here’s the thing. Let’s for a second accept that someone could, by rational discourse, convince you to douse yourself in fuel and set it alight. Even if they had that power, your circumstances would have to be so dire that you saw that suggestion as a legitimate option. As a solution. That you’re willing not just to countenance the act, but to imagine that it might change things for the better.
Our government wants us to believe that you killing yourself, maiming yourself, would merely be a ploy to affect government policy. A ruse. A tactical approach drawn up on the whiteboard. As though the motivation somehow clouds such an act.
But all that matters here is the act. If the act is strategic, you must be so desperate that burning yourself alive seems a legitimate strategy.
In the end, it does not matter one fucking gust in the gale how or why either of these people came to the decision to torch themselves. Nor any of the others who’ve tried to end their own lives in our care. In any scenario, their circumstances were so objectively awful that they were willing to die to escape them. We created those circumstances. Our country made that happen, knowingly, deliberately, and with great care and attention to detail. We have refined those circumstances over 15 years of experimentation, and we have created conditions that people would rather die in agony than endure any longer.
That is what we have done. If you want to find someone at fault, it is the country that has done it. We have made people suicidal, known they were suicidal, then kept them in a situation where there was not only no remedy for their mental illness, but where we knew it would worsen.
People are focusing on Dutton. Sure, he was once described as Paul Keating bitten by a radioactive spoon. Sure, demonic photos of him litter the internet. But the point is that really he’s nothing. He’s nobody. He’s a shallow non-person with a few inherited opinions, no scope to analyse them, and little else but a cortex-based desire to be amongst the group in charge. No doubt he has got drunk and danced on the table of a CBD bar with his tie around his head, and a few school friends still call him “Dutto” or “Bulldog”, and jovially recall that time he did something interesting. He is only evil in its most banal iteration, one of the interchangeable head-nodders with a stubborn pride in taking instruction, the ones for whom thinking is a moral failing curtly avoided.
What is common to atrocities across theatres and eras is that they are carried out by the most ordinary people. They are suggested by someone, encouraged by someone, but made possible by the many who just say yes. Before Dutton, the relevant job and the relevant ire belonged to Scott Morrison. Before him, Tony Burke or Chris Bowen. Richard Marles sits on the other side of the house saying little. Before Chris Evans was Peter Reith, Amanda Vanstone, Emperor Palpatine. They each swallowed any scruple they could locate and took to their task with anything from application to enthusiasm.
Malcolm Turnbull has built his image on being the urbane, reasonable, civilised chap who could talk the whole thing out with you over lunch. It doesn’t matter. He’s still running a group of headkickers, happy to bully people towards death rather than risk a perceived electoral advantage. A nice suit, soot under the fingernails, accelerant on the sleeves.
There is an election coming that will mean nothing. No elected majority will change this. We are torturing people and any potential leader will keep doing it. Voicing objection means nothing, it has meant nothing for years. But people are dying, now, and in misery, now, and it’s our country doing it to them. When a government commits known outrages, how can it be made to stop? More to the point, how can it not be made to stop? Does it need a crowd to march on the capital? What outdated apparatus of resistance has to creak into gear? How do we physically sit here, offering outrage that we know will be ignored, unable to intervene?
This has to stop, it has to be made to stop. How do we stop this? What do we do?