Fair gone

The war on terror being fought in our name implies that there are two sides struggling for two diametrically opposed visions of the world. Instead, our fear has created a world where these two visions have become increasingly indistinguishable from the other.

The principles of the international rule of law, and the fundamental human rights precepts that underpinned them, took much of the 20th century to refine. They may have been imperfectly applied, but the ‘civilised’ nations of the world all agreed that they were not to be abrogated.

But ever since terrorists laid waste to the World Trade Center in New York, these principles—conceived as bulwarks against international chaos—have become expendable. The prohibition against torture and extrajudicial killings, the equal protection of all as innocent until proven otherwise, the right of a nation to live free from foreign invasion and occupation, and the right to liberty were once hard-and-fast rules designed as much to protect our enemies as our own societies from tyranny. Each has now been so comprehensively undermined that it is questionable whether such rights exist at all.

It is now a matter of record that Iraq had no involvement in September 11 and possessed no weapons of mass destruction, and that secular Iraq was as despised by the grim visionaries of al Qaeda as were we. That we shared with Saddam Hussein.

What we also shared with the deposed Iraqi dictator was a world view so obsessed with survival that invading another country could be justified as an act in the name of freedom. In Saddam Hussein’s fevered mind, he ‘liberated’ Kuwait, in the same way that our proxies ‘liberated’ Iraq.

True, Saddam Hussein never spoke of democracy. But in attempting to impose it through force, we have disenfranchised an entire nation and retained the right to a casting vote.

What was the US-appointed Iraqi government that ruled Iraq in the year after the invasion if not an unelected government installed by military means? What was Abu Ghraib—whose fetid cells were home to Saddam Hussein’s dissidents, real or imagined, and are now home to our own—if not a manifestation that we are as guilty of torture as one of the world’s worst dictators? What was our failure to hold to account those who carried out the torture, those who redefined torture’s definition until it became meaningless, if not a certificate of impunity for state agents who commit violence beyond the scope of human rights norms? And what are the imprisonments without trial in Guantánamo Bay, the unexplained deaths of innocent men in secret holding cells in Afghanistan, the secret flights which carry prisoners to friendly governments all too eager to extract confessions, and the desecration of the holy book of another religion, if not the end of civilisation as we know it?

A litmus test of civilised nations has always been their treatment of the victims of war and persecution, the world’s ‘poor and huddled masses’. In Australia, a nation built first on invasion and then on immigration, we have seen fit to imprison those who flee persecution, to lock up those messengers from the world’s trouble spots whose intelligence would have proved far more useful than America’s pre-war intelligence. In so doing we have failed to distinguish between those whose fear is genuine, and whose journey here was a courageous act of last resort, and those who set off in search of a better life.

In the process, we have criminalised being foreign, made an entire religion the object of our suspicion and tightened our border security to ensure, Tampa-style, that the victims of war and persecution never reach our shores. We have become a country where Schapelle Corby and Douglas Wood stand as the new symbols of a personalised foreign policy that posits narrow national interest above international solidarity, thereby reinforcing the idea that Australians are more deserving of our sympathy than the millions of nameless foreigners on our doorstep who await our mercy. The fair go, it seems, applies only to ourselves.
When the dust settles on this Hobbesian world where power and moral superiority are dictated down the barrel of a gun, we may discover that little remains of the way of life that we claim to defend. We may also find that in our desire to protect ourselves from all that is evil, we have become a mirror to all that we despise.

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent



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