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Razer on the refugee crisis, the banality of evil and futility of 'compassion'

In these days that follow wide release of images of a toddler’s corpse, an emotional west has managed to convince itself of two things. First, we have finally begun to understand the truly wretched nature of the Syrian conflict. Second, we have finally begun to embrace our own truly beautiful nature. As we “light the dark” not only of our wartime ignorance but that of our unlit souls, we welcome a humanitarian dawn where a long night of foreign policy is ended by pure, dazzling love.

This isn’t true, and there is no light here, as I will shortly and darkly explain. What is true, of course, is that these pictures of a dead baby are distressing. That any little chap should know that wine-dark sea as a real monster and not simply as the site for fictional beasts from Homer is too much for most of us to understand. The death of a child will always resist understanding and this is why we invent myths to explain it. Once, we had an afterlife to help us tolerate the tragedy of early death. Now, we have a widespread belief in our powerful compassion. If little Aylan Kurdi can live on, we tell ourselves, it will be in the redemption of the west.

In recent days, several figures from whom we might reasonably expect a strategic understanding have reverted to this emotional one. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the pictures of the little boy served as a “wake-up call” and New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said “And then you see a photo. And somehow it changes everything.”

That one photograph can “wake up” or “change everything” for a policy maker is not an especial comfort. Actually, it’s an immense worry. Our politicians have known about the scale of death by disease, airstrike and land militia in the region for years and if they say they haven’t — and to say that the image of the dead little boy is able to “change everything” about their understanding is to say they haven’t — they’re probably fibbing.

Palaszczuk and Baird are far better placed than most of us to really know the not only the nature of the multilateral conflict in Syria — participation in which both of their parties support to varying degrees, against strong advice even from conservative strategists — but the contexts from which asylum seekers in their own states have fled. In other words, you’d hope that a politician had read far enough beyond their talking points not to be surprised that yet another child had died. How could such people not know about all the children in the region who had died by air-strike in the last decade or by sanctions in the decade before? These leaders are either even more ignorant than me of these complex ghastly theatres of conflict, or, they’re bunging it on.

Between us, I believe they’re bunging it on. This is not to say that they are not personally moved by the image, but it is to say that they know a photograph that will win hearts and Pulitzer Prizes when they see it. Public display of private grief by politicians is something we citizens not only expect but demand. Which is to say, we have to own up to the way we make them fib and say “this changes everything” when, really, years of considering policy on asylum should have changed everything.

“This changes everything” is as mythic as the afterlife. You can argue that This One Powerful Image of a dead little boy has been enough to activate humanitarian policy in the case of the Syrian crisis. Perhaps it will even save some lives. But you cannot argue either that similarly distressing images of children in conflict seen before today taught us anything useful about western assault on sovereign nations or that the brilliant light of love and understanding is enough to save the world.

That we need to mythically see the night of this life as a way to “light the dark” is quite understandable. It is not, however, pardonable. That we can forget that we have seen not only pictures of children and adults subject to institutional harm many, many times before or that we can continue to believe that the emotional jolt that these extreme images provoke action is peculiar.

What we are saying here is that we believe that it is the thing that we see directly that is of the most urgent priority.

Last week, Tony Abbott said of the IS fighting strategy, “The Nazis did terrible evil but they had a sufficient sense of shame to try to hide it,” to very justifiable critique. It is absurd to say that it is better to conceal genocide, in this case a far more effective one, than to permit its open display. It is idiot nativism of the highest order to compare the worst, coldest and most modern decade of systematised murder to any other and there is good historical reason that we consider the Holocaust to be the greatest and truest model of “shame” in history. It was not shame that led Nazis to disguise atrocity as reason. The disguise of atrocity itself was one of the most shameful things about it and few have said this with more precision than Hannah Arendt who gave us the phrase “the banality of evil”.

It is when evil is camouflaged and explained to the point it becomes everyday that it is permitted to systematically prosper. In these contemporary, large-scale conditions, the brutality that we can see is always going to be the least of it. Our “shame” is that we have forgotten this.

We call a war a conflict, torture “advanced interrogation” and the starvation of half a million Iraqi children a “sanction”. Our language around war has become euphemistic, but our appetite for hyperbolised images of it has become insatiable. Just as Tony Abbott can commit this reversal of logic and say that the real problem with IS is that it shows crude torture on YouTube, we are able to say that the real problem with this war is the picture of the death of a baby.

This is not to say that this death is not a “problem”. Of course it is. It’s horrific. But its display should not permit us to think that we are, at last, staring real “evil” in the face.

The real “evil” is, as it has been for more than a century, banal. It can be traced to a thousand poor decisions, a lack of grand strategy and to the “humanitarian” posturing of western nations themselves.

It is not proximity to what various commentators, including, obviously, Bono, have called our “humanity” that will end these deaths or restore this little boy. It is the painful awareness that we have built a very banal evil of a scale so vast — often in the name of humanitarian intervention — it can never be seen. Evil can no longer be revealed. If we really want to do something useful about undoing complex “evil”, we might start by no longer looking for a picture of it.

41 responses to “Razer on the refugee crisis, the banality of evil and futility of 'compassion'

  1. The bothersome thing about this for me is that it seems to suggest to the public that government will not act on things they know are happening with any compassion unless the public happens to see a particularly distressing image.
    Abbott’s lame backflip on this issue makes me wonder cynically if sensationalism plays more of a role in shaping public policy (at least the most public of public policy) than any sensible intelligence.

    Perhaps this is why so much policy is reactionary to particularly grievous failures of policy.

  2. I remember reading that F.Scott Peck book on evil~ “People of the Lie”. This is the same author, a psychiatrist, who wrote “The Road Less Travelled”, which I also read..
    Then there is that wonderful book by Judith Herman, another psychiatrist, “Trauma and Recovery”.
    So there are many worlds colliding(INXS) and I wish I had never seen that photo of the dead kid face down in the water.
    Thanks Helen.

  3. “It is the painful awareness that we have built a very banal evil of a scale so vast — often in the name of humanitarian intervention — it can never be seen. Evil can no longer be revealed. If we really want to do something useful about undoing complex “evil”, we might start by no longer looking for a picture of it.”

    Helen, if this is the point of your article I would largely agree.

    Governments, industries, common people do horrendous things every day. There is no way of understanding it but it is revealed to each of us in different ways every day if we have eyes and enough understanding or education to see.

    Each of us chooses how best to live and how best to respond to the evil or the wrongdoing we see every day. Some do more than others through whatever means we have.

    But that picture possibly has had a major impact. It was symbolic of a desperate situation and the desperate need of refugees and asylum seekers. Of course people responded to the picture in different ways, and the picture inspired protests and acknowledgement that changed the Abbott Government’s attitude a little, even though we may be cynical about that. Sometimes symbolic representations somehow galvanise people into understanding and action. For various reasons – lack of education, different values, crisis fatigue and overload, indifference etc. other things may not have the same impact

    This picture is partly responsible for the fact that 12,000 additional refugees will be able to come here. This would not have happened otherwise, and we have to keep organising and holding this appalling Government accountable. It does not end here for me, and it didn’t begin here, either.

    Many of us don’t wish to take an entirely cynical and black view because that would overwhelm and destroy us.

    Incidentally, I do admire your work and read it when I see it. Sometimes I simply disagree, however.

    1. I think Helen’s point here though is not that the picture hasn’t done some ‘good’ – its hard to argue with the notion that the death, as you say, in some way caused the thousands of refugees to be taken in around the world – but rather that it in no way actually moves us any close to solving the problem of why these refugees are fleeing in the first place.

      The boy’s death is tragic, sure. Those refugee intakes are great, swell. But is the conflict in the middle east any more resolved? Is the (arguably well founded) generational hatred of the west and its influence any less profound? Is dehumanising treatment of people (especially women) by IS and some other middle eastern states any better? No, no and no.

      It would thus appear that it is hardly ‘cynical’ to suggest that our faith in ‘humanity’ by taking in refugees ain’t gonna solve the problem, its only logical.

      Until the west can actually commit to something much more complex and ‘boring’ like a 30-40 year plan for BIPARTISAN development in the middle east, (i.e. working WITH the middle east, not imposing our pretty screwed up ideology on them) conflict is gonna stay around for a long time.

      But no, apparently dead children tell us everything we need to know about solving the Syria conflict…

  4. It is a wonder that there is any country left in the world that still provides socialised dental care. God knows it wont be for much longer. Once the mainstream media are finished undermining public support for the welfare state by flooding first world countries with millions of immigrants then globalisation will have achieved its primary aim – to replace social welfare with corporate welfare.
    There are millions of Australians who go without dental care because it is not covered by Medicare. In the past 15 years we have become the most expensive country in the world to live in thanks to the massive increase in population. Houses now cost a million dollars so the elites think they can force the young and the immigrants to slave their lives to pay off a prison cell sized apartment.
    The vast majority of Australians, Europeans and Americans do not want large numbers of immigrants or refugees. This is as true today as it was before any propaganda blitzkriegs like what we have witnessed from the worlds ‘media’ this week.
    The media rejoice in their ability to control the narrative and pretend that there is ‘overwhelming’ support for their program of white genocide.
    They think they can continue to pick and choose who our political leaders are but the public have woken up to their lies and the rise of outsiders like Corbyn, Trump and Sanders has begun, while the insiders like Bush and Clinton are finding that the public are no longer buying the shit that their insider media propagandists like Helen are dishing out.

  5. I can’t say I really agree. Images and instances are indeed the way most people are able to galvanise thought and action. Hence “the let them eat cake” fixation as a flashpoint for the French Revolution, Adam Goodes’s spear toss as a litmus test for racism, the picture of the Ethiopian girl and the buzzard, all acted as catalysts for action on stuff we already “knew”. We are a visual species, and pictures say a thousand words and all that. If it wasn’t so, you wouldn’t be writing an article every fortnight decrying that yet again the hoi polio have been hoodwinked by a visual singularity.

  6. “The Nazis did terrible evil but they had a sufficient sense of shame to try to hide it,” could just as easily be applied to the “Pacific Solution” and “On water matters” and all of us…just to hammer the point home 30% of the electorate think we are not severe enough in this area even though there have been horrible tales leaking out of the Gulags we have established and outlay billions of dollars maintaining..I wonder what Reza Beratis parents make of our confected compassion..?

  7. With the “barbarity of ISIS” being such a popular yard-stick (especially for this PM and his fan club), why don’t we get to compare the barbarity of their beheadings to those of the Saudis?
    And is the implication true that “we don’t commit collateral damage”?

  8. I consider that the media has failed to provide a balanced view of events in Syria. It’s easier to keep us ignorant, so our emotions can be manipulated, whether in the direction of self-righteous compassion, or fear-based xenophobia. Either way, it’s a sickening game of PR. I want to know what’s really going on; the puppet masters in governments and secret services are having a field day and refugees are just their pawns.

      1. A single comment that contains “all you need to know”!
        Why do we even bother with policy analysts?
        FFS. There is no simple truth on war that can be conveyed in 100 words. There never is.

  9. Helen, if you really believe you have a workable answer to this problem, instead of writing long meandering regurgitations such as this article, why not set down HOW the problem can be resolved, or is it because you find it easier to simply harp on about how unfortunate the situation is?

    1. Knowing, Norman, that you’re an undead ultra-human who grows stronger with every reply to your every reflex comment, here goes: what are you on about?
      Okay. First, this “If you haven’t anything nice to say” approach to analysis is just utter sophomoric rot which you evidently haven’t thought through. If every journalist or thinker or academic was *only* permitted to describe a problem if they also provided an answer to that problem, then few problems would ever be described. This “don’t describe the problem if you can’t also describe the solution” response by internet is as common as it is stupid. Don’t report on a misdeed unless you have a way to stop it from happening? Well. There goes crime reporting.
      Second. This is a piece about “the problem” of western belief in tolerance. That is posed as the problem here. My solution is actually provided in this case, which is “stop believing in the power of tolerance”. This is not a piece about how to stop the multilateral war or the scattering of millions or illogical and expensive foreign policy. I will leave that to the best minds in international relations which, by the way, seem to have little consensus other than “probably the only way to defeat IS is by funding regional land war efforts” (from both realist and liberal thinkers) and the warning that western forces have no place here. But this is not about the war itself. It is, again, about the western belief that we Can Really DO Something Through Love and Understanding. Given that my entire and rather obvious point is that it is precisely this faith in our own emotions that prevents us from acting strategically and in any way that could be reasonably thought of as humanitarian, I have actually answered the problem I posed.
      I won’t say to you, Norman, “if you can’t be positive, don’t say anything”. But I will say that if your reading comprehension remains at its current level, you may wish to consider desisting in comment.

  10. I agree that symbolic pictures shouldn’t be the cause of change, it makes us too vulnerable to crap changes too, however, given the dehumanization of the Other, in this case those seeking safety, by our government and opposition, humanizing can be useful. The term Banality of Evil is powerful because it means that ordinary people do evil deeds, and behoves us all to think about what we do, and not be part of thoughtless mobs. We have to think responsibly about how we solve these issues… just protesting and clicking will not do it! Thanks Helen.

    1. At least there was response to the pictures of the little boy, and it was a positive response for those refugees who will be given safe haven because of it.

      We understand much through symbols, and the picture of that little boy was a powerful symbol, as was the picture of the Turkish policeman or soldier
      carrying his small body the beach.

      Our political systems and those who run Governments have long been self-serving and morally shaky. At least the picture of the little boy galvanised ordinary people into action thus changing the minds of Tony Abbott and his Government with regard to the refugee crisis.

      I know we need greater change than this response alone but at least this incredibly sad photograph did precipitate some good actions. It may also have pricked internal changes and compassion in many disillusioned or uncaring people in our various communities.

      That can’t be a useless thing.

  11. Agree with everything you say about the politicians. I don’t believe that the death – or more accurately, the photo of the corpse – of the boy changed the politicians view. The thing it changed was view of the bulk of the population. People suddenly were able to identify some thing that they understood and knew to be wrong. It was the reaction that changed the politicians.

    Social media woke up the world on this occasion. Perhaps it is a good thing.

    1. hey David – I agree with your comment here regarding the population. Photo’s can force change and I believe in this case, some change will continue to occur regardless of the evil which is a constant.

  12. “It is when evil is camouflaged and explained to the point it becomes everyday that it is permitted to systematically prosper.”


  13. Thanks Helen. Good, critical thinking against this latest floodtide of manipulative, warmongering propaganda.

    It seems appalling that Abbott has no idea about why the SS directed intensive camouflage over the mass-murder camps of Operation Reinhard in eastern Poland. The decision for cover-up was made just after Stalingrad, which guaranteed their eventual defeat and capture. And all apparent in his bogus rhetoric about a bogus enemy of mercenary gangsters.

    I gather you weren’t joining in last night’s U2-style candle-light rallies, where crowds seemed to feel more humanitarian-than-thou.

    Then again, maybe these recent Australian rallies weren’t just reminiscent of fans’ cultish veneration of Bono and The Edge, but more like those other emotive scenes of torchlight-bearers almost a century ago?

    Such is the silliness when people are encouraged to ditch Reason for something superficially communal and “spiritual”, a bogus spirituality that insists it is secular, no matter how many church celebrities hitch a ride

  14. I think you are right and in Baird and Palaszczuk you have examples of the way both our major parties are offering us very little.

    But saying this Baird did offer free public transport to refugees in the recent past. I know that in my state WA Premier Barnett has not done the same though the request has been made. It was a simple, boring and effective decision and one that stood in contrast to standard main party politics of “blame it on an asylum seeker”.

    I am no fan of Baird but I wonder whether he saw a political opportunity to move when the photo came out? Probably not, but if he goes on to question the nature of TPV’s suggesting that refugees should be able to work and get education we may see the hint of sensible policy.

  15. HR. Yet another great piece. Everything you write pushes the reader to evaluate their thinking. Sometimes my first reaction is defensive, sometimes even angry. But by the time I finish reading … and really listening … I have invariably moved into a better place. Thank you. I am currently reading Russell Brand’s rambling, thoughtful and amusing ‘Revolution’. Maybe that’s what we need.

  16. The situation is more complicated than this. I’m not sure where to begin, so initially I’ll pose a Question:

    Why is the US currently involved in Wars in Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan? Why has the US dealt with Iran by either trying to politically isolate and destroy it, or more recently, by playing catspaw to it? Do you know when Iran last attacked anybody?


    Anyway. moving on:

    In 1944, there was meeting. That meeting culminated in something called the Breton-Woods Agreement.

    The result of that agreement was such that it was decided that the USD would be the Global reserve currency, and that commodities would be priced in the USD. It was also decided that those American Dollars would remain redeemable for Gold at a rate 35 dollars per ounce. This gave the US, essentially, control of the world’s money supply and put them at a very, very large economic advantage.

    The US promised that they wouldn’t print out too much money, but the body that governed this action, the Federal reserve, would not have any oversight in this process–not even by the US government. The Federal reserve is not, it is important to establish, a part of the US government. It is for all intents and purposes, a private bank.

    Several generations later, it became clear to other countries that the US was printing amounts of money that far, far exceeded the actual amount of Gold the US had in reserves. They started asking for their gold back, which caused a very sharp decline in the value of the US dollar.

    This came to head in 1971 when the French asked for their Gold back, and Nixon refused. Nixon then directed the head of the treasury to suspend the convertibility of the dollar into Gold. This was meant to be a temporary suspension. In reality, it was a permanent default. It was a blatant theft of not just France’s Gold, but most of the world’s. What Nixon needed was a different kind of commodity to base the value of the USD on in order to stabilize, and increase its value.It had to be something that everybody needed all of the time, and that they could not live without. That commodity was oil. In order to consolidate that commodity market,he did something very clever.

    Nixon visited King Faisal of Saudi Arabia; the country with the world’s largest reserves of oil, and requested that he accept only the USD as payment for oil, and to invest any excess profits in US treasury bonds, notes, and Bills.

    In return, Nixon guaranteed protection of Saudi Oil fields–something that Faisal accepted graciously, given that his country was surrounded by enemies. The history of Middle Eastern relations has been, and is, characterized by tribalism.

    Nixon offered the same terms to all members of OPEC. By 1975, every single member of OPEC had agreed to only sell their oil in the USD.

    The act of moving the dollar from gold to oil did several thing Instantly forced every single country in the world to maintain a steady supply of Federal reserve paper–and to get it, they would need to send real, tangible commodities to the US. Paper went out, and everything that the US needed came in. America became spectacularly wealthy.

    This, ladies and Gents, was the beginning of what we now term the Petrodollar.

    America became so rich in fact, that it’s defense budget was equal to all other countries on Earth combined. It now had, especially after the fall of soviet Russia, the last counterbalance to its military might and effectively had the means to begin securing the oil reserves by force.

    Now we have to Fast forward to the more recent past. In 2000, Iraq switched from pricing oil in the USD to the Euro. Three years later, the US had invaded Iraq. Once the US had conquered Iraq, the first order of business was to switch oil indexing back to the USD. To put that into perspective, this meant an immediate revenue loss of 20%–gragantuan amounts of money. However, the US saw this as short term pain for long term gain. The invasion of Iraq was never about WOMD’s. It was about the petrodollar.

    Let’s now look at what’s been happening in the Middle East over the last decade or so and see if you notice a pattern:

    1) In Libya, Gaddafi had been at ne point a US shill, was implementing a new gold standard based currency called the Dinar. It was intended to replace the USD. The US government invaded Libya in 2011, killed Gaddafi, and immediately set up a central bank.

    2) Before Obama’s Iran Deal, Iran had been making moves to move off the petrodollar, and the us had been bending over backwards to economically ruin Iran.

    3) Syria is a bound ally of Iran, and has been completely destabilized by the US with the assistance of covert ops by NATO.

    4) The entire Iraq debacle, which I don’t need to explain.

    I am going to tell you all something, and I hope you can believe me when I tell you this; if the oil producing nations that price their Oil in USD only switched to any other currency, the USD would collapse virtually overnight, because it is leveraged to the tune of trillions of dollars. But so long as that doesn’t happen, it cannot collapse. It doesn’t matter how many sub prime crises happen, it doesn’t matter how many dirty derivative and CDO schemes are played out by wall street and the big banks. None of it matters apart from oil being priced in the USD. Nothing.

    And the US will, and has, used its brute force to ensure that that doesn’t happen. And it will continue to do so. None of the Middle Eastern ‘Interventions’ have anything do with liberating the masses from dictators or ensuring the safety of the world from terrorism, or nuclear destruction. It’s about securing that black stuff below the sand into the future. This is just how the world works.

    If you want to know what evil looks like, you need not look further than your fuel can.

    1. Congratulations on calling it like it is Fantomas. Will the majority of people ever know about this? Unlikely, because of the massive complicity of the mainstream media. But you’d think that Crikey would call it….

  17. I find this unnecessarily dismissive of other peoples expressions and banally cynical. It is adding nothing but an homage to your own perception of your superior perspective from what I can see. Most of the people I knew at light the night events last night have been involved in a life time of social engagement and protest. They work hard to create, demand and fight for a better more just world. They took a moment to to come together and feel grief not as an epiphany but as a facet of their continued engagement with human rights.

  18. I agree, the hypocrisy is nauseating but cheap sentimentality has always had more influence on public policy than mere consideration of the facts. Nonetheless shouldn’t we be grateful that something has provoked public compassion? We’ll see whether those nice Germans feel quite as compassionate after a couple of weeks sharing their home with people whose domestic habits are somewhat alien to their own. But let’s hope so.

    1. But look out for negative propaganda preented as fact by mainstream media.

      Does anyone know if there is any substance the story and/or claims emanating from C10/Fairfax Friday i.e. ‘Aylan Kurdi’s father is a “people smuggler”‘?

      This seems like a big ‘dog whistle’ to ‘muddy the waters’ before Canning, military action in Syria, and calls to do nothing for refugees….

      This ‘report’ ws re transmitted by other media outlets in Oz, including News, but only international reports were via a ‘white nationalist’ news site in the USA:

      and ‘red top’ tabloids in UK

      This is not a case of US ‘white nationalists’ or ‘white nativists’ informing Australian mainstream media and how to ‘dog whistle’ on race etc., but Australian mainstream media informing the bigots in US and UK i.e. Anglo world on how to ‘dog whistle’ (without realising)?

  19. The world is f’d up big time.

    I ask this question seriously, what can I do?

    It pisses me off that the answer appears to be nothing.

    If feeling like shit helps, well. I’m doing that in spades.

    1. Communication is a form of action so by writing your comment you have actually done something. Writing however should be with an aim in mind if it is to be effective. There is no doubt that the state of the world leaves much to be desired. Think about what you are for, rather than apposed to and advocate for it. Personally I believe there has been for some time a failure of public ethics. I am old school, so sure in the end there is always the option of one’s own strong arms (Revolution) however I believe force should always be a last resort.

  20. Helen, I agree with what you say here… but perhaps you needed to take it one step further and call out the real evils. To get you started, here are a few items on my short list of the “real evil” that thrives amongst us on this Tuesday afternoon: the dismantling of healthy scepticism and our joining the march as cheerful followers down the garden path of lame sophistry and spirituality; our conversion as the burgeoning foot soldiers of Facebook activism armed with limitless inspiration from cheap slogans to assuage our petty guilt and build our wolf blown humpies of self-respect; and our shameful lack of confidence to respectfully challenge and reject what we are told without fear of being cast out of the warm fold of milk sopped inclusion. Feel free to build this list of shame…

      1. One brilliant, sparkling article. Something too pure for anyone to read without being blinded, muted, deafened, and never able to feel again. Get to it…

  21. An incisive piece. The trauma zone is too threatening – we prefer our sentimental narratives. But when politicians start trading on the sentiment and refusing to acknowledge the chaotic actualities of war someone needs to call the bluff. Unfortunately most of our political journalists think their job is to tell the story of the day as it has come down to them from the autocue of the propaganda machine.


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