“This is a turning point,” says one bipartisan head on the telly this morning. Another pops up to agree that,” Something must be done”. A third emerges to praise the Prime Minister, who is also of the view that this is a turning point about which something must be done and today, even the most conservative and cruel columnists are using terms like “shock”, “disgrace” and “royal commission”. This must never happen again.
CCTV footage aired last night on ABC1’s Four Corners is the document of an atrocity. The torture of children at Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre is not a practice that any reasonable mind could vindicate. The newspapers are all agreed: our national redemption begins this morning. This must never happen again.
This, of course, is a noble and human response to a low, institutional sin. There is no way to respond to the abasement of human life but with a call to action. What moral instruments we have agree: this is a cold, dark day. We will fill all our remaining days with warmth and light. This must never happen again.
Today, we are unified in our response to a scandal. By tomorrow, though, we’ll be divided about exactly what must never happen again. We’ll continue to agree, of course, that small black boys should not have gas sprayed directly in their faces. But frankly, this is a cinch. To say “I don’t approve the state-endorsed torture of minors” is no kind of test of our moral courage. It’s a bit like agreeing that cancer is a horrible disease.
This was not an Isolated Incident. This is history doing what it has been prompted to do.
The real work rests in answering the question of what you don’t want to happen again. And, if the answer is simply that you would prefer it if the eyes of indigenous minors are no longer showered in poison, well, congratulations. You are not, in fact, the ethical leavings of Satan’s meanest dog. If, on the other hand, your answer gives rise to more questions, then you might have actually ascended back to earth.
The question of what happened at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre is, of course, one that must be directly addressed. But, if we do not permit this question to provoke much broader ones and if the ambition of our policy makers does not exceed an interest in tear gas alone, then down we go. Back to a limbo where we permit ourselves to think that an objection to torture is the same thing as moral courage.
It is not particularly noble to cry at the spectacle of a kid being tortured. It is not particularly principled to argue that the guards that did this to him must be held to account. It is not even enough to say, as nice liberals are wont to, that the measure of a good society is how it treats its most vulnerable children. Perhaps, a better measure of a good society is how it learns its history.
History brought us here. It wasn’t a few bad employees.
History brought us here. It wasn’t a few bad employees. It wasn’t a handful of negligent politicians. It wasn’t anything as simple as a lack of “respect”. It is two centuries of policy that brought us here and if we are to think of what happened to these boys as a “scandal” instead of something inevitable, then we will not ascend.
Tear gas in the face of a kid is just the logical endpoint of illogical policy enacted at different times by different legislators. And, there’s really no need to return to 1788 to trace the origin of the torture we saw last night. From the mandatory sentencing introduced first in WA by Labor premier Carmen Lawrence to the so-called “Intervention” of the Howard government, indigenous Australians have been subject to institutional discipline and cruelty that can only produce agony and devastation.
The same policy settings that have stripped indigenous Australians of property, health, self-determination, cultural memory and longevity are those that produced what we saw on TV. This was not an Isolated Incident. This is history doing what it has been prompted to do. If we permit ourselves to see this as anomalous or shocking and not as the very predictable outcome of ongoing institutional paternalism, then we permit ourselves to see nothing at all.
The time to view such moments as “scandal” has long since passed. This is not a scandal, but Australian business as usual.