Slaughter, Guilt, Comfort, Denial

by Carmen Lawrence

The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, April 9, 2003

(World Press Review, June 2003)


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.

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