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Shipwrecked on Christmas Island


Truth is a rare commodity in these ugly times of war and belligerence, economic corruption and instability, political servitude to capital and intrigue and state and corporate oppression of dissent, all of it drenched in the filthy mire of the media of mass deception. We may never know the full truth of what happened on the shore of Christmas Island last week, or how it came about that a shipload of desperate refugees fell to such senseless tragedy. But for those of us who have horizons wider than the limits of a plasma TV screen there are a good many things that can be deduced.

Among those who live within the confines of that fantasy world there is a vast reserve of bitter scorn for anyone who makes these deductions and commits the sacrilege and blasphemy of questioning the self-infatuated image Australians have of themselves and their precious reverence for “Australian Values”. Nevertheless, for people making those deductions out there in the “real world” it must certainly be the case that the last semblance of moral integrity or any credibility of Australian claims to cherish the notion of a “fair go” for “the battler” was shipwrecked on Christmas Island that day along with a small, wooden fishing boat full of courageous hope.

The Media Spin

This tragedy is one more in a succession of past events such as the Tampa episode and the devious “Children overboard” deception by the previous government followed closely by the earlier loss of a fishing boat crowded with some 300 refugees in a cloud of doubt surrounding the level of commitment of the Australian Navy to rescuing survivors or indeed to averting the disaster. Clearly sensitive to the unpleasant look of this record the Australian media has been at such pains to paint a picture of concern and compassion that the outpourings of grief have reached such a pitch as to give the impression that most Australians had a relative or friend among the dead. One radio news report included an explicit statement that the lives of refugees are valued no less than the lives of Australians. Someone obviously thought we needed to say so. 

A politician made the usual speech about “our deepest, heartfelt sympathies go out to the families of those whose lives have been lost in this terrible tragedy”. Perhaps we have reflected a little as a nation since being shamed after the Bali bombing when the (real) international community noticed that the Balinese dead were left uncounted and the Balinese injured left to their fate while the numbers of Australian dead were on the lips of every Australian and plane loads of Australian injured were urgently flown to hospitals at home; the government was forced to save face by flying some Balinese to our shores for treatment - with great fanfare, of course. However, given that Afghan civilians are still dying and being injured and maimed on a regular basis with our casual indifference, that appears not to be the case. It doesn’t seem likely that the Australian military could violate Australian towns and villages with such reckless violence in search of terrorists posing a threat to our national security. Then and now it seems clear that the value of life is variable and sometimes very cheap in far off places.

This urgency to give ardent expression of Australian compassion and concern for the victims of the Christmas Island tragedy did not distract the media in its insidious purpose of giving rich emphasis to Iranians among those on board. Clearly, the overwhelming majority were Iraqis, yet the “Iranians” were always mentioned first, even when this caused a misleading distortion in statements such as “Some Iranians and Iraqis”. The emphasis has been such that many Australians will in future remember the event, if at all, as being the shipwreck of a boatload of Iranians. Of course, the importance of this seemingly insignificant distortion is that the idea of boatloads of refugees fleeing a regime that we have been demonising as an oppressive dictatorship is much more politically palatable than one of Iraqis fleeing the country we have destroyed with our violent, illegal, aggressive and immoral war for oil.

The fact that Iraqis have been rendered refugees in numbers exceeding four million and are still fleeing in large numbers from the oppressive and corrupt pro-US puppet government that has been installed in that country is not a subject the Australian media cares to discuss. Too much attention to this could lead to the broader question of why it is that, contrary to the natural human inclination to live their lives in the place where they were born and spent their childhood, millions of people are leaving their homes and risking their lives and even their children to go elsewhere. When people chant their racist lament that their country is being overrun by foreigners they should be urged to reflect that if we did not bomb and destroy their home countries, destroy their homes, livelihoods and lives and create chaos and instability everywhere, these people would not want to leave.

So here we have not only an abject failure of the Australian media to engage the correct debate but we have also the contemptible, insidious and deliberate effort of distortion, deflection and misrepresentation – the usual cocktail of media deceit.

The Criminal Culpability

In the early 1990s I was invited by an acquaintance into the control centre of the Australian Customs Coast Watch facility in Canberra. Here was a roomful of communications equipment, radar screens, large-screen video monitors and maps.

I saw how every part of the coastline was routinely monitored and patrolled, how planes could be dispatched at any time to any location to take a closer look at some radar blip far out at sea. I saw and heard how this room operated as a nerve centre in constant contact with planes in the air in far-flung locations from one side of the country to the other. I even got to thumb through the collection of nude photographs of sunbathers on the decks of yachts observed from the air; those on board believing they enjoyed privacy far out to sea.

But that was 20 years ago. Today, the planes are faster, the screens are bigger, and the technology is richer. The nude photos are digital and no doubt arrive on the big screens in real time. Given the nation’s preoccupation with fear – fear of terrorists, fear of illegal immigrants and fear of shadows - this department will have had more than it’s share of government spending and indulgence with every technological gadget and operational asset that American defence technologists can imagine. For anyone willing to do so it is not hard to deduce the clear absurdity of the assertion that this boatload of refugees, intending illegal immigrants, was not being monitored.

Still more, in this modern age, with a teaming abundance of meteorological data being constantly collected and analysed by automated instruments and equipment, the weather conditions along the full Australian coastline are known on a real time basis. The violent weather conditions over the Christmas Islands would certainly have been known in that Customs Control Room from which the Australian coastline is constantly monitored.

We can clearly deduce that there is an issue of criminal culpability here, an issue that goes far beyond an inconsistent valuation of human life or a serene indifference to the welfare of lesser human beings. While Australian Customs and Naval authorities assert that the boat was not being tracked or monitored in the course of its journey of 90 days duration this, if it were true, would itself be an act of moral if not criminal negligence.

The Theft of the Tragedy

Far from cowering in shame for the actions and inactions that have led to this tragedy, all the way from a failure to anticipate the danger and tow the vessel to safety, a failure to address the circumstances that led to this boat, like many others, undertaking such a risky venture in the first place and all the way back to the creation of circumstances in which these people would want to leave their home countries at all, Australians have stolen the tragedy. Emphasis has now drifted away from the real victims of the tragedy to the “trauma” of those who witnessed it from the shores of Christmas Island and who now need counselling. Indeed, we now have yet another opportunity to celebrate the legendary Australian heroism with grand attention to all the efforts at rescue. For the refugees in the Christmas Island detention centres, whose empathy with the victims has given rise to bitter anger, indeed some have relatives and friends among them, the press has nothing other than the usual denigration of their angry outbursts and passionate railing against their treatment and detention.

The General and the Specific

Beyond the fantasy world of Australian soap operas racism remains a reality in Australia as in any other country in the world and when fuelled by sensationalist media reporting of immigrant gangs raping women and other outrages it’s not surprising that there are many Australians who have hostile feelings towards immigrants and even more so towards illegal immigrants. A more insidious immorality is the collective indifference and silent complicity in the illegal and immoral actions committed by our governments against other nations and peoples in our names.

But the most deserving of utter condemnation is the active participation of individuals in these immoral acts whether it be by direct participation in acts of violence killing and injuring people in other countries or by deliberately allowing the deaths of dozens of refugees in an avoidable tragedy in the expectation it will serve to deter others or by providing the deceptive, dishonest media coverage that masks the ugly reality or indeed the disingenuous reporting of events in a way that will fuel racial hatred. In Australian life it’s not hard to observe that the degree of willingness to subscribe to the “War on Terror” and to actively participate in these national acts of immorality is directly related to the degree of infatuation with our American “allay” and that, in turn is directly related to the material benefits that accrue to individuals and groups consequent on American dominance of our economy, media and politics.

There is not so much love for all things American in the dole queues of outer suburbia as there is in the tennis courts of Kooyong or the yacht clubs of Sydney Harbour.

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