The twin terrors of 2001


Ten years gives perspective on the 'twin terrors' of 2001; the Tampa rescue and 9/11. The juxtaposition is especially poignant.

On 25 August 2001, 433 asylum seekers from a stricken vessel in the Indian Ocean were rescued by the captain of the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa, who was subsequently denied permission to enter Australian waters. On 11 September 2001, al-Qaeda launched four coordinated suicide attacks on US buildings using hijacked passenger aircraft.

Jesuit Refugee Service Australia director Father Aloysious Mowe referred to Tampa as the marker of a fundamental shift in the way refugees were regarded in Australian society.

The 9/11 attacks occurred as Australians were attempting to make sense of Tampa which, said Mowe, 'allowed former Prime Minister John Howard to treat asylum seekers as a national security issue that affected Australia's sovereignty rather than an issue regarding Australia's obligation to extend protection to people who are genuinely in need of such protection and who arrive in its territory.'

Before Tampa, refugees had been regarded as part of the general migrant population arriving in Australia and adding value to the country's economy and community life. After Tampa they were a threat to our sovereignty that was somehow grafted on to the sense of public malaise prompted by the 9/11 attacks on the sovereignty of the United States.

The irrational fear that was spawned ten years ago developed a life of its own, which politicians have variously kept alive and tried to contain. The asylum seekers, whom Australians might have reached out to with a sense of compassion, became objectified threats to our sovereignty that needed to be locked away or, better, prevented from reaching our borders by being placed in offshore detention.

The Gillard Labor Government had taken the political option to play to the fear by continuing the Howard Government's policy of offshore detention. It adopted the rhetoric of the Coalition that was part of a determination to 'stop the boats'. But the strategy came unstuck last week when the High Court ruled that the deal with Malaysia, and most likely other offshore arrangements, were illegal.

After the High Court ruling on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen struck a defiant tone, 'not ruling anything in or out in terms of our response'. 

'While this is a blow, it does not undermine our resolve to break the people smuggler's business model through a regional arrangement.'

What was missing from the Government's response was acknowledgement of the asylum seekers as human subjects, rather than objects of a political strategy. They — not Labor's fortunes — are the real casualty. In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars which followed 9/11, the human casualties were referred to as 'collateral damage'. The main game was the nurturing of public fear. The humans caught up in it remained incidental. 

Perhaps the Gillard Government's withering response to the High Court judgment showed that Australian politicians have learned nothing after ten years. The test for the United States might be whether the focus of Sunday's commemoration is the individuals who died in 9/11, or a renewed determination to beat Al-Qaeda.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: tampa, 9/11, John Howard, sovereignty, asylum seekers, refugees, Chris Bowen



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Existing comments

To state that Tampa was a dividing point in our attitudes towards refugees is a dangerous ovesimplification. Those fleeing the Viecong takeover of South Vietnam in the 1960s were treated by Austalia's left wing progressves with the same lack of compassion that Tampa generated. That attitude has grown since but it is not new.

Grebo | 05 September 2011  

'Before Tampa, refugees had been regarded as part of the general migrant population arriving in Australia and adding value to the country's economy and community life.'

I think the fear of refugees goes back a lot further Michael. Remember the Dunera Boys fleeing Nazi persecution who were treated with suspicion, as a potential threat to Australia. I agree that there is a real fear of the so-called 'boat people', but I'm not sure that 9/11 marked a real change, so much as recycling these attitudes that have long existed. If you want to depress yourself, have a look at the comments posted on the Herald Sun web-site on this issue.

Penelope Cottier | 05 September 2011  

Given that we are blessed with as shallow a bunch of politicians as any Western nation enjoys, it would be easy, even fun, to lay all the blame for this, all, at their feet.

Sadly though, these weak characters we pay to 'lead' us all are ever eager to please the most ignorant of punters in their electorates.

On top of that, the news media know that their sales figures are tied to ads', which in turn are tied to the masses of dumb consumers who spend like drunken sailors and keep our national economy thriving, just ask Gerry from Hardly Normal what happens when punters stop spending in this manner to know how true this is and how shallow our economy really is.

The result is that the meanest and most ignorant of people direct both news views and political views.

I like to blame politicians, because I see them as weak creeps who bow to ignorance first, second and always but the truth is, if Bowen and Gillard are enacting Liberal Party policy on behalf of Abbott and Morrison who hold their views to please their gun-toting greedy, thoughtless racisr supporters it is because of our neighbours, perhaps even ourselves, and the very low regard for life beyond 'own households' that can be seen every where today.

Bowen should have already resigned, if only to allow Gillard some face-saving opportunity, but if it were not him, there are dozens of ALP parrots to do the bidding, to please the punters who love Alan Jones and loathe all those truncated derogatory names that this e-mag is too scared to publish these days.

One good step would be to leave any 9/11 celebrations where they belong, in the past, along with all celebrations of division, be they Orange marches or ANZAC Day ones.

Woe betide any politician who stoops to redefining this 9/11 action as a religious test for people in Australia. I can feel that bubbling just under the surface already.

Harry Wilson | 05 September 2011  

We have legal immigration to this country. Why should we accept illegal immigration? Why do you equate illegal immigration as persecuted refugees?

Why can't some people in Australia see the diference between illegal immigration and legal migration? It makes no sense to treat every illegal immigrant as a bona fide refugee.

Trent | 05 September 2011  

The issue has never been refugees . The issue has been and remains the way international criminal syndicates manage to provide a service to people with money to enter Australia ahead of poorer refugees. The Government has been correct in trying to stop this people smuggling trade despite the outcry from plainly stupid and ignorant “do gooders”.

Beat Odermatt | 05 September 2011  

Why on earth Bowen ever thought he could trade and traffic human beings though is beyond me. Did her really believe it now when he knew in 2006 that it was illegal?

Now after tormenting those poor people who arrived after 25 July he has shamelessly said they will be assessed here.

Well gee, what choice did he have when the court made it very clear that we cannot expel people without determination of their claims?

WE try and treat these poor devils worse than mass murderers.
Good news in NSW district court - a jury finally had the good sense to understand that fishing crews are not smuggling anyone.

Marilyn Shepherd | 05 September 2011  

Beat, stop flogging the dead horse. There are no international criminals bringing refugees here by force.

Giving refugees transport is not people smuggling and I will keep saying that until it penetrates.

Marilyn Shepherd | 05 September 2011  

Unfortunately the ideas contained in comments from Trent and Beat Odermatt are not restricted to the pages of Eureka Street. The refusal to recognise that seeking asylum is legal under international law and ratified into Australian law is widespread in our selfish society. The vilification of asylum seekers inherent in the term, "illegal immigrants", used by speakers on both sides of Parliament, is clearly widespread in Australian society. Otherwise our parliamentarians would not use the term.

While Michael's alignment of the Tampa incident with the 9/11 attack is valid, Australian rejection of asylum seekers goes back a long way, as commented by Grebo and Penelope Cottier.

And despite this hard-heartedness to some of the world's most vulnerable people, we continue to kid ourselves as a nation who believes in a "fair go".

It's time we stopped kidding ourselves and recognised how smugly exclusivist we actually are as a nation.

Ian Fraser | 06 September 2011  

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