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On putting things together



One of the abiding temptations of writers is to gather apparently disparate events under a single theme and to turn happenstance into a movement. The result can be portentous and self-important a murder, a protest march and a performance by a nihilistic band can herald the collapse of Western Civilisation or the rise of the Proletariat. Even a failed attempt to put different events together, however, may sometimes raise interesting wider questions about society.

What might link, for example, the promised legislation in South Australia to impose mandatory indefinite imprisonment on child sex offenders convicted twice of the crime, the detention of children in the crowded and under-resourced Cairns watch house, the shape of debate about the conduct of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and the British legislation to send asylum seekers to Rwanda?

Clearly, each of these issues has a unique complexity irreducible to any shared features. Yet the similarities are striking. In each case Governments are faced with urgent and complex challenges. In each case, too, people are divided into a deserving and an undeserving group. The members of one are to be treated with respect, and the members of the other as undeserving. That polarisation then allows governments and individuals to disregard the shared humanity of all people in society. It also allows them to treat the members of the disfavoured group as less than fully human. The lack of respect spreads further into eroding the legal checks and balances devised by democratic societies in order to respect the dignity and equality of each human being and to alleviating the fallibility of political judgments. The actions taken often exacerbate the evils they set out to address. 

This dynamic can be seen in the incarceration of children in watch houses in Queensland. The situation for which this was seen as a solution was clearly complex and compelling. The incidents of home invasions, car stealing and dangerous driving, magnified by dramatic reporting on it and by vigilante threats, were rightly a source of community concern. They also reflected larger issues of disadvantage and the history of discrimination against Indigenous Australians. The challenge required a response of concerted and continuing support of families and of their children designed to help them to take responsibilities for their actions, as well as of initiatives to protect the wider community.

The Queensland Government, however, responded by extending the powers of the Justice system with its emphasis on punishing crime through incarceration. This emphasis on criminality stigmatises the children caught in it, seeing them as different from so-deemed good children, and provides justification for treating them differently. The routine deprivation of children’s liberty under the most humiliating and brutal of conditions of overcrowding, undernourishment, lack of privacy and separation from family would never have been accepted were it applied to ‘good children’.

The disrespect for children also led the Government to override the legal restrictions designed to protect their dignity. It twice amended the Human Rights Act that limited its powers to detain children. It is hard to imagine anything more likely than this systemic disrespect to create despair, resentment and antisocial behaviour in young people, and to foster an adult life of criminal behaviour to the detriment and cost of the community.


'It is right to deplore actions undertaken in the conduct of war by either side, and necessary to press for its ending. The real enemy which all observers should agree on is war itself, which destroys the present and poisons the future.'


In South Australia, the proposed changes to legislation about the sexual abuse of children reflected the growing awareness in the community of the extent of sexual abuse of children, of the lasting harm often suffered by its victims, and of the need to protect children from abuse in churches, schools and families. This realisation certainly needs to be enshrined in law. 

Growing abhorrence of sexual abuse, however, is also often accompanied by contempt for the persons who commit it. This encourages the division of sopciety into good human beings and monsters who are less than fully human and therefore undeserving of respect as human. The Government may then use its power to remove from the latter protections that the legal system provides to respect their dignity.

The South Australian legislation enshrines this reasoning by imposing mandatory indefinite sentences on people who have been twice jailed for the sexual abuse of children. This erodes the important role in society of the judicial system in assessing guilt and punishment for crime. Respect for human dignity demands that the level of responsibility of the person, the circumstances of their actions, their maturity and their prospect of change of life is also taken into account in sentencing. It offers protection against arbitrary government and popular prejudice.

The British Government faces a difficult challenge in responding to the people who seek protection. The complexities of the task include the need and number of the asylum seekers, the gross inequality and unjust treatment that have driven them from their homes, the difficulty of assessing claims and finding accommodation, and the need to share burdens regionally and internationally.

These challenges be negotiated in ways that respect the humanity of the persons affected. The determination of the British Government to send people who have sought its protection to Rwanda, however, like that of the Australian Government to send them to Manus Island and Nauru, divides people into two classes those deserving of respect as persons and those who may be treated as objects to be used in ways that will deter others. This attitude then leads to brutal treatment of persons seeking protection, and to legislation that removes from them the protection of social institutions that limit the power of Government. That authoritarian attitude is most clearly shown in the provision of the Rwanda legislation to allow the Government to declare Rwanda a safe place for refugees. It confers on the Government the right to control truth.

These examples show the dynamic underlying the lack of respect by Governments for persons under their care. The debate about the war in Gaza differs in that it does not touch directly on the actions taken by Government but on the shape of conversation about it. Here too, we should recognise the complexity of the situation where different groups make historical claims to the same land, where political interests and alliances are involved, and people in Israel and Gaza have suffered and been killed in large numbers.

The conversation is often framed, however, by asking which party is to be supported, and giving reasons for supporting one or other. The decision, in fact, has usually already been made, and the argument is constructed accordingly. It is then taken to justify any action taken by condemn any action taken by one party, to justify any action taken by the other and minimise the destruction and loss of life involved. This approach claims a Godlike view that inevitably distances the persons affected by the war from the conversation. They become numbers and ciphers valued for the side they are on or for their use for an argument. Such conversation itself contributes to the prolonging of war.

The correct starting-point of conversation about any military action, and so about Gaza, is to recognise that we should focus on all the persons affected by the violence: the Israeli people killed by Hamas and on the people of Gaza killed in the retaliatory action, and then on those injured, displaced, made ill and left anxious and homeless. We should also imagine the effects of such experience on those who survive it as well as on future generations.

From this perspective, it is right to deplore actions undertaken in the conduct of war by either side, and necessary to press for its ending. The real enemy which all observers should agree on is war itself, which destroys the present and poisons the future.

Whether the links I have drawn between these different events are real or not, I leave to you to judge. But they do at least illustrate the harm of dividing human beings or nations into good and evil.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Gaza, Israel, Britain, Refugees, Human Dignity



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Existing comments

My impression is that it's not so much people deciding that those children and sex-offenders are evil, but rather just wanting protection, for themselves and their families/communities from significant harm.

Same in Gaza, the Israelis want protection from the harm we saw on Oct 7 and they don't have a group (Hamas) that they can negotiate with, because Hamas continue to say that they will take any opportunity to eradicate Israel.

Russell | 01 February 2024  

Dear Andrew,
As one of those people who boldly but often wrongly compares events across sectors which are incomparable, I am really grateful for this piece. As you say we are destroying the present and poisoning the future. Whatever prayer means, I pray that your message reaches the ears of someone who can topple the balance so we stop dividing our human mates into goodies and baddies.

Jill Sutton | 02 February 2024  

Tragically, Andy's reasoning has been summarily dismissed by Russell, whose line of thinking has recently been described by George Monbiot, the UK social ethicist, as 'extrinsic rethink'. ('Why do people keep voting for Donald Trump', The Guardian, February 1).

In sum, what extrinsic consideration does is to depersonalise an issue to the point that it coalesces with others to obliterate compassionate comprehension and consideration, thereby to weaponise people's grievances to the point that the latter become ideologically recognisable as a platform to make conspiracy theories plausible and, in some instances as with the Holocaust, democratically acceptable.


Michael Furtado | 02 February 2024  
Show Responses

Andrew wrote of "home invasions, car stealing and dangerous driving" (and today we're thinking of the grandmother murdered in front of her granddaughter in a carpark) and suggested a response, a plan: "a response of concerted and continuing support of families and of their children designed to help them to take responsibilities for their actions, as well as of initiatives to protect the wider community."

I couldn't help thinking of that great philosopher, Mike Tyson, who famously said 'Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth'.

I don't think of the youths that murdered the grandmother as evil - Lord knows what culture they came from - but, if possible, I would like them deported, failing that, gaoled for a very long time. I just want the community to be protected from that level of harm.

Russell | 05 February 2024  

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