Slaughter, Guilt, Comfort,
by Carmen Lawrence
The Sydney Morning Herald,
Australia, April 9, 2003
(World Press Review, June
Despite the thump and stutter of war,
there is an eerie silence in Australia. So many people have all
but stopped watching and listening to the incessant, if sanitized,
coverage of the war. They've turned off the "militainment."
They're not ringing or writing to their MPs. They've cut back
their consumption to the necessities of life and zipped their
purses. They're bunkered down like the poor wretches in Baghdad,
many with their fingers in their ears and their eyes covered.
It's as if they have decided to change
the subject, to avert their eyes, pull the curtains, and mind
their own business.
They don't want to know that the Red Cross
reported this week that the number of casualties in Iraq is so
high that the medical staff has stopped counting and the hospitals
are overwhelmed. They would prefer not to be disturbed by the
screams of the wounded and the grief-stricken sobbing of orphaned
children and smashed families. They would rather not hear the
story of Ali Ismaeel Abbas, 12, who was fast asleep when a missile
demolished his home and obliterated most of his family, leaving
him orphaned, badly burned, and without arms.
While these unimaginable horrors are happening
at the behest of Bush, Blair, and [Australian Prime Minister John]
Howard, many of us don't want our sleep disturbed by the dark
images of Baghdad smoldering or the detritus of war-the blood,
the vomit, and the broken lives.
We don't want to think about the depleted
uranium dust left blowing in the deserts and the streets of Iraq
to blight generations to come. Or of the unexploded cluster bombs
like those that have killed or injured over 4,000 civilians since
the last Gulf War.
We want to live in the lotus land of sunny
innocence, oblivious to 33-year-old Nadia Khalaf's body Iying
on a stretcher with her heart on her chest, ripped out by a missile
that intruded uninvited into her morning ablutions, her bewildered
father weeping inconsolably beside her bloody body.
And elements of the Australian media will
assist in this since they too do not want their narrative of victory
and liberation sullied by the gore of innocent bystanders. No
blood and guts, please, we're a civilized people, fastidious
about _ what we allow in our living rooms.
It's only through a few exceptional journalists
and the garrulous Internet, with the access it provides to the
other stories, that some Australians are able and willing to gain
a partial understanding of how it might feel where the bombs fall.
This is deeply unsettling. It's why most of us want it all to
be over as quickly as possible and for life to return to normal.
Many of us seem to entertain the vain
hope that ignorance will confer innocence, that by denying the
consequences of our complicity, it will be as if it never happened.
We hope that if we don't see the deaths, they can't be real.
It seems almost as if, in some larger
sense, we don't see the Iraqi people as human beings, don't see
them as precious lives to be valued as we value our own. We are
good at denial. Whatever happens, we are not guilty.
That "unseeing," that denial,
runs deep in Australia. It is, after all, at the root of our relationship
to indigenous Australians, reflected in our treatment of the refugees
who've turned up on our shores asking for our succor.
If we have a niggling feeling that all
is not well, we comfort ourselves with the thought that our leaders
wouldn't take us into war without reason. Or we embrace the idea
that we have to fall into line because our fellow Australians
need, indeed demand, our unqualified support; that mateship requires
unthinking allegiance to the cause, no matter how blighted. Or
we seek to minimize the horror and destruction of war, saying
it could have been worse or that it is the lesser of two evils,
belatedly discovering, as Howard has, that Saddam Hussein's regime
was a brutal one.
We can listen, apparently untroubled,
as Howard reassures us the precision bombing and "targeting
policies" are working. I wonder if he or we would be so sanguine
if the death of his wife and children was calculated to be the
necessary, "unavoidable," sacrifice necessary to overthrow
the Iraqi regime.
We solve the dissonance between the mayhem
and misery being carried out in our name and our view of ourselves
as a generous, decent people who do not willfully injure others
by not seeing, by finding excuses, by seeking refuge in "the
mindlessness of the group mind" and by bowing to authority,
yet again. Follow our leaders.
It may be that conformism is one of our
strongest national character traits; that we have cynical-but
unfortunately not skeptical-attitudes to authority figures. We
seek refuge in the officially sanctioned position because we're
terrified of being seen as different or troublesome. Rebellious
anti-authoritarianism is reserved for the outer at the football.
It's as if our colonial past has permanently weakened our national
and personal independence and our ability to think for ourselves.
Don't ask too many questions about exactly
what is being "won," or how. About whether it is really
a "fair fight" between the world's military and economic
superpower and a nation weakened by decades of oppressive rule
and years of punishing sanctions.
Don't ask whether the United States-the
most unequal of all the industrialized countries-is indeed the
paragon of democratic virtue it claims to be, the "single,
sustainable model" of social and political development. Or
whether we should endorse the U.S. government's narcissistic belief
that, above all other nations, it is ordained by God to deliver
liberty to the Iraqis through the barrel of a gun. As one African-American
asked so pertinently: "How you gonna export something you
ain't even got at home?"
It's a very good question. And he is entitled
to ask it, since it is his people who are jailed and executed
at astonishing rates, who are twice as likely as their fellow
citizens to be unemployed and who are, as a result, disproportionately
represented among those the Army has recruited to put their lives
on the line to fight the Bush war.
Don't ask any of this-winning, apparently,
is all that matters.
Through all of this and because of our
denial, Howard and his government are not being held to account.
There is only occasional and perfunctory questioning about his
reaction to the deaths that he has sanctioned. Or questioning
about the reality of Iraqi people's lives in the charnel house
of war. Or pressure on him to explain how it is that the justification
for the war-removing the weapons of mass destruction-seems to
have been one of the early casualties. What of his claim that
the war was legal and flowed from United Nations resolutions now
that the linchpin has been removed?
Our willing ignorance, our denial, our
susceptibility to propaganda, our t_ failure to properly assess
or comprehend what is being done allows Howard and his champions
to keep trotting out the same old lies-that the war would not
be a difficult endeavor; that the Iraqis would be grateful; that
targeting would result in few casualties.
And we hold close the dark secret that
we could not feel as we do if the bodies being mangled were more
like us; that our distance would be impossible if these were white,
Christian, English-speaking Westerners.