Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-3-5134 8556

+61-4-1349 7828

Oct 2007 # 1

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Back to Editorials 2007

We Are All Witnesses

“She lay just beside us, a young pretty woman lying on her back. She lay there as if sunbathing in the heat, and the blood running from her back was still wet. The murderers had just left. She just lay there, feet together, arms outspread, as if she had seen her saviour. Her face was peaceful, eyes closed, a beautiful woman whose head was granted a strange halo. For a clothes line hung above her and there were children’s trousers and some socks pegged to the line. Other clothes lay scattered on the ground. She must have been hanging out her family’s clothes when the murders came. As she fell, the clothes pegs in her hand sprayed over the yard and formed a wooden circle round her head”. 

Robert Fisk penned this terrible description for the Independent in 2001. He was recalling his experience as he and two other journalist colleagues explored the aftermath of what we know as the Sabra and Chatila massacre in 1982, just days before my first son was born. On the 17th September the Israeli backed Phalangist Christian militia stormed into the two refugee camps, home to thousands of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced Lebanese Muslims. There, with the Israeli army watch over them, the militiamen systematically murdered, raped and tortured up to 2000 fellow human beings.  

Fisk and other international journalists were able to give eyewitness accounts of the bloody aftermath. Yet none of them have been called to testify before the commissions that were grudgingly held by the Israeli government. Nonetheless these commissions did hear first hand accounts, by survivors, mainly women, of the horror they endured. Sabra and Chatila are not the only example of the murderous intent of some of those who hold power. However, to this day, there are those who would deny these terrible events took place and condemn those who speak out about them as traitors and liars or worse. 

Recently I discussed the use of mercenary armies such as Blackwater USA and how, when the public conscience is sold off to private interests, those that rule us feel safe in saying “it was not our doing” when innocent men, women and children are murdered by their ‘private contractors’. Indeed, as we know, Eric Prince, the founder and Chairman of Blackwater cut his teeth as an advisor to the Bush regime and the deals he cut there have now served him well. They are being used as his defence for the atrocities his government and his men, acting under his government and his orders, perpetrate on Iraqis. 

The beautiful young mother, wife, daughter, sister and aunt, described by Fisk, is just one of the millions of innocents who have been slaughtered in the name of “national security” or a “national emergency”. If you don’t think it could ever happen here, ask yourself, “why were politicians and police so concerned, just a few weeks ago, that one of the Chaser crew could have been shot dead during APEC in Sydney?”

However, the flawed logic of the “national security” or “national emergency” arguments sometimes fail or cannot be spun in to a form that would be ‘defensible’ by those who would control us. In these instances the spin doctors are called in to find a suitable ‘crisis’ situation that could be used as the cover for their more nefarious intentions. Here in Australia we have not yet fully witnessed the way the ‘total state’ is enacted. But we hear the familiar discourses it employs. They revolve around issues such as “personal safety”, “community order” or “protecting the vulnerable”. In this last case I remind you that our federal government is now “protecting the vulnerable” children in Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory. 

In the name of protecting children the federal government has enacted martial law in the Northern Territory. Perhaps more precisely, they have enacted martial law only in selected townships in the Northern Territory. Unlike a calamity such as 911 or Hurricane Katrina, using a pretext of a “national emergency” our political masters have begun an experiment. One which could potentially see outcomes such as that witnessed by Fisk and his colleagues. “Absurd!” you say? “Now he’s really lost it,” you might argue. But not if we examine history.  

The state of Israel was established under two distinct conditions. One was the need to ‘deal with the Jews’. The other was the grand dream of the ‘promised land’ being obtained. Under the first condition the good burghers of some US, English and European cities wanted to clean out selected slum areas, including the poor Jewish quarters. The rich Jews in those cities were keen to see the paupers moved on as they felt those Jews slighted their own reputations. In cahoots with the governments of the day, these influential Jews hit upon the idea of “returning” the Jews to the “promised land” to claim their “rightful” inheritance. 

Mass, sponsored migrations were organised as the message was put around that these poor and oppressed people would find a land groaning under the weight of milk and honey. But, alas, they found that was not the case. They had to chase out, murder or otherwise displace the existing Palestinian population. Many of the poor had to do the dirty work for their wealthy sponsors. All of this occurred under a false discourse of “nation building”, “fulfilling G_d’s will” or “claiming their rightful place”. A few decades later the world shook as the Jews were targeted under the Nazi regime and many said “never again”. 

What is forgotten by most is that the Nazi regime came to power under false threats to so called “national security.” On the back of a “national emergency” they created a state which chased down and murdered anyone they saw as a threat to them, real or imagined. The Jews bore the brunt of this racially motivated atrocity. But they were not alone. Ordinary Germans were also killed as many of their compatriots looked on either agreeing the murder was justified or too scared to speak out. 

What had occurred was that step by step, each small increment adding to the previous one, laws were enacted that prepared the way for a small, coordinated, focused and dedicated group to take control of the levers of state power. It took less than 10 years for a culturally rich, proud, independent, globally engaged and wealthy nation to be transformed. When total power was gained, the rhetoric of a beneficent dictatorial government was replaced with the truth of a ruthless, murderous regime. Many Germans said they didn’t see it coming. They fell for the speeches, crowded with references to their cultural folklores and mores. By the time the Nazi’s took power, it was too late and many of those that had supported, endorsed and worked for them realised they were now in a perilous situation. 

So it is with Australia. While I believe we are far removed from anything resembling Nazi Germany or a “total state” one has to ask, “Why these laws? Why now?” Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that we do enjoy immense freedoms and privileges (unless you’re Indigenous, disabled or poor) and these freedoms and privileges make us more able than at any previous time in history to challenge those who would rule us. We have, via technologies, the ability to transmit messages at the speed of light. We have the ability to put out messages that challenge the dominant ideologies. We also have the ability to see instantly the results of events occurring around the globe in real time. In short, we have the ability to no longer ignore the atrocities that Fisk and others witnessed. We are, via technologies, all witnesses. 

“National security” and “national emergency” are terms that come loaded with meanings. When coupled with something as emotionally loaded as “child abuse” and spun by spin doctors, these terms can mask the real intent of what is going on. Like the language used to justify Sabra and Chatila, the use of these terms comes to mean whatever those holding the guns say it means. A beautiful young woman shot through the chest by a state sponsored mercenary is a powerful reminder that unless we resist, there remains the potential for her reality to become that of someone we love. The question is, “will we allow it?”

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