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Christmas Island and the Language of Death

Another dead asylum seeker under our watch. More thought-terminating clichés from the Australian Government.
November 10, 2015, 7:45pm

Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. Image via Wikicommons

On Sunday, the body of a man was found at the base of a cliff.

The cliff was on Christmas Island, and the body was that of an asylum seeker who was being kept by Australia in indefinite detention.

What followed was two days of rioting as security guards fled the center, and the Australian Federal Police had to be brought in to settle the situation. Things have been brought under control. "Control" is a relative term.

Many Australians were outraged by yet another asylum seeker death that occurred on our watch. This was the fifth, following the deaths of Hamid Kehazaei, Reza Barati, Ali Jaffari, and Mohammed Nasim Najafi. And yet our outrage was nothing compared to the outrage expressed by Immigration Minister and melted off-brand Prince William waxwork Peter Dutton.

"If people have committed serious offenses," said Mr. Dutton, "including willfully damaging Commonwealth property, they may face charges."

Yes, the element of this that provoked the majority of outrage and media quotes from Mr. Dutton was the cruel and inhuman destruction of Commonwealth property. May it rest in piece.

For the sake of clarification, Mr. Dutton did not appear to be referring to the Commonwealth property willfully damaged during Tony Abbott's Holy Shit I'm Not Prime Minister Anymore party. No one was charged for that property destruction, presumably because destroying property when you're being kept somewhere is worse than destroying property when you're not allowed to stay. But I digress.

When referring to the death itself, Dutton and his ministry were keen to employ deliberately obfuscating language.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection put out a press release stating that an "illegal maritime arrival" had escaped from the center on Saturday morning. "Arrival" was being used as a noun, and the "person who died" was being used as a political cudgel.

At the best of times, this is a tactic designed to stop us thinking of them as human beings. At the worst, it is a way of deflecting blame or the sympathy for the death of a person by gently suggesting that the victim had it coming.

The deceased's name was Fazal Chegeni, and he was an Iranian Kurd who had been detained for five years. Two-and-a-half years ago he was determined to be a refugee, and was released in Melbourne, but was then re-detained due to an assault charge that had occurred when he was in detention. And although that doesn't actually tell you very much about him, it tells you a lot more than the "illegal maritime arrival" description designed entirely to dehumanize him. He was a person with a story, and even the bullet point version of that story sounds deeply unfair.

The binary of "people" and "hardened criminals" so favored by governments is being used here to suggest that the deaths and any poor conditions were more deserving. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton described the term "thought-terminating cliché" in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism:

The language of the totalist environment is characterised by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorised and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis. ... Totalist language, then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentless judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: in Lional Trilling's phrase, 'the language of nonthought'.

In other words, we've stopped the boats.

The reductive language the government has used to refer to asylum seekers has often included "boat people" and "illegals." "Boat people" defines them purely by the method they arrived here by, reminding us of the narrative that the act of coming by boat is heinous. "Illegals" says that their very nature is defined by being illegal, despite the fact that seeking asylum is not illegal and our actions in detaining them often are.

At the best of times, it is a tactic designed to stop us thinking of them as human beings. At the worst, it is a way of deflecting blame or sympathy for the death of a person by gently suggesting that the victim had it coming. If he hadn't been a criminal, he wouldn't have been detained; if he hadn't tried to escape, he wouldn't have died. Basically, our hands are clean.

Except that they're not. Even if all of that gymnastic rhetoric was true, the story we've been told regarding the circumstances of Chegeni's death may not be entirely accurate.

Peter Dutton's only real statement in regards to the death was this: "As I'm advised, there are no suspicious circumstances in relation to the death."

This goes against the claims of Matej Cuperka, another detainee on Christmas Island, who told the ABC that the death was "very, very suspicious."

The rioting inmates, he claims, believe that the officers "did something" to Chegeni. "I clearly heard him in the morning screaming for help, and the next thing I see they be bringing him in a body bag, and after that the whole place went into lockdown."

Another detainee had also heard the cries: "The person had been screaming for help, and later on people have been carrying a body bag. It was a couple of screams: 'Help, help, help me'."

This is all circumstantial, and these stories, whether true or not, still leave a lot of room for interpretation. It's difficult to corroborate them, and that is also by design: since Operation Border Force came into effect, the media blackout has played a significant role in keeping everyone confused and in the dark. Speaking of which, we can add "that's an operational matter" to Lifton's definition.

With the press shut out and information coming almost exclusively from the government, we have little choice but to go by what Peter Dutton tells us. To focus on the things he wants us to focus on.

On a day when over one hundred countries (including Iran and North Korea) criticized Australia for its poor treatment of asylum seekers, the death of a man in our custody was treated thusly: "People who think they can act outside of the law have another thing coming," said tough guy Dutton, who incidentally refused to deny that he and the government illegally paid smugglers to ferry people away from Australia. Ultimately, being illegal is just a matter of perspective.

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