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(written by Dave at Woomera, April 14, 2002)

Political regimes face overwhelming frustration when they impose one punishment after another onto dissidents, but all to no avail. Their frustration can easily get out of hand. If torture fails to achieve submission, then dictators often find themselves pushed to the point of murdering their own people.

This willingness by dissidents, to die before accepting defeat, is a powerful political tool amongst the oppressed peoples of the world. When the oppressed do not have the military might or will to destroy their enemies, they are often able to achieve more by destroying themselves. Their willingness to die, and even to push the button or pull the rope themselves highlights the ultimate powerlessness of their opponents.

Gandhi did that in India. More than once he fasted to where he was near death, and when he did, things happened which could not have happened at the point of a gun.

The name Bobby Sands remains clearly in my memory from when I was a teenager. I had been told that the IRA were nothing but terrorists. But when Bobby Sands fasted to death in a British jail, it won him the respect of many like myself from around the world... even if we did not fully understand his cause.

We, the living, have an irrational fear and hatred of those who commit suicide. Their deaths, however senseless they may be in reality, laugh in the face of our obsession with self-preservation.

The word cult became one of the most hated words in the English language when nearly a thousand people committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana some thirty years ago. Admittedly, evidence showed that many of the members were actually murdered. But there was no such evidence when yet another religious group, the Heaven's Gate cult in America, quietly passed away in yet another mass suicide.

The Jonestown people saw suicide as their only escape from what they perceived as persecution for various abuses which had occurred in their organisation, and the Heaven's Gate people saw suicide as a stepping stone to a higher level of consciousness. But in both cases, the public was outraged. There was no one left to punish for such wastes of human life, and so it led to obsessions with "busting" other cults which showed signs of similarity or sympathy with such groups. After all, someone needed to pay for what had happened in those two places!

Suicide bombers push the limits even farther. They not only commit suicide themselves, but they take others with them. All of our frustration and anger at suicide is increased tenfold (or more) when suicide is linked with murder. Someone must be punished.

But like Bobby Sands, the terrorists themselves are already dead. They are beyond punishment. And so, like the cult-busters, the leading world powers go on a campaign of terror supposedly against terror itself. The rules for distinguishing the good terrorists from the bad ones are almost as vague as the rules for distinguishing good cults from evil ones. But again, someone must pay, and a willingness to commit suicide seems to be the ultimate proof of evil in both cases.

More innocent civilians may be killed in Palestine than have been killed in Israel by suicide bombers, and more innocent civilians may be killed in Afghanistan than were killed in the World Trade Centre, but that does not matter. At least the punishment being meted out by Israel and the U.S. came from people who play by the rules... by people who stay alive after the carnage is done, so that their enemies can at least retain the hope of getting revenge one day.

I remember being told about Japanese kamikaze bombers during World War II, as though they were the most despicable people the world had ever known. Rather than take a chance on missing the target with a dropped bomb, kamikaze pilots would fly their planes directly into battleships. No amount of fire-power from the ship itself could stop the dead pilot from hitting his target. According to the U.S. it was terribly unfair.

Once again, we see the frustration that such suicidal commitment presents to those of us who want only to get the battle over with so that we can return to a normal life.

And now let us conclude by relating all of this to the refugees being held in detention centres around Australia. They are called "reception" centres, and yet the conditions are worse than the worst prisons in Australia. Men, women and children are tear-gassed and sprayed with capsicum spray when they refuse to obey orders. Why?

Is it not because these are desperate people, who have shown a willingness to lose their own lives in order to escape something in their own countries? Doing things like sinking their own boats in the middle of the ocean, in order to be picked up and taken to Australia for asylum, is unthinkable to us. And so we get outraged by it.

Sewing their lips together or going on hunger strikes to draw attention to their cause results in decent respectable Australians saying, "We don't want such people living in our country!" And when they risk all to break out of the concentration camps in which they have been imprisoned, Phillip Rudock promises that harsher treatment still, will result. And if he cannot punish the escapees themselves, because they are safely locked up in jails, then the ones who failed to escape will be given harsher treatment instead.

But how much harsher can it get? Some detainees actually hope to be put in proper Australian jails, so that they can at least have visitors, talk to lawyers freely, read uncensored mail, make phone calls, receive donations to be spent for personal needs, escape the tear gas, and keep their children safe. None of this is possible in the DIMIA concentration camps.

It is only a matter of time before mass suicides take place in these detention centres. The average Australian will not understand it when it happens. We will, of course, be outraged. But very few of us will take the time to seriously ask why... just as we failed to do after September 11, and just as we fail to do now with regard to the Palestinians.

But, whether we like it or not, the suicides will be the ultimate proof of the futility of the Ruddock-Howard philosophy of mandatory detention and oppression. No amount of oppression will overcome a people who have the will to die for their freedom.

Dave McKay, Refugee Embassy, Woomera.

(See also The Blood of the Lamb.)

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