On Wednesday, David Hicks, a former detainee of Guantanamo Bay, heckled Federal Attorney-General George Brandis at a Human Rights Award ceremony in Sydney. Brandis had concluded his address and was walking off the stage when Hicks stood up.
"My name is David Hicks", he yelled, "I was tortured for five-and-a-half years in Guantanamo Bay in the full knowledge of your party. What do you have to say?"
Brandis, who has been a Senator for Queensland since 16th May 2000 and was therefore a member of Federal Parliament throughout Hicks' detention, kept walking. If you watch the video, you won't see anything resembling a grand showdown. Because Hicks waited until the end of Brandis' address, the Attorney General was spared a difficult decision: whether to try to talk to the former inmate of Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta, or to talk over him.
So, after a brief interaction with the next person at the microphone – "You know who I am mate. We know each other. Make him answer my questions" – Hicks looks around, less confident than when he began, and concludes, "He's run away."
The encounter was odd, and contained enough pathos to warrant a news story. But without enough controversy or comment to get it through to a second day of coverage we were left with Brandis' evaluation, "There was a random individual who turned out to be a terrorist yelling at the side of a room for about three seconds." And the assessment of Stephen Kenny, Hicks' lawyer and the man who brought him along to the event, "It was quite a spontaneous thought by David," he said while adding, "The Australian Government should be held to account for how they allowed David Hicks to be treated."
Some publications came down wholly on Hicks' side, avoiding any reference to the circumstances that landed him in Guantanamo Bay, even going so far as to cheer him on.
But for the most part, coverage was limited to some facts about both men, a summation of what was captured on video, and a reference to the damning US Senate report about CIA interrogations post 9/11.
Merely detailing Hicks' detention at the hands of the US and his alleged torture doesn't capture what he has meant to Australia. In his lifetime, David Hicks has been perceived and portrayed as the embodiment of two different kinds of a national shame.
At this point in time, it's probably fair to say he is mostly identified with the years he spent in Guantanamo. In light of the weeks' revelations about the behaviour of the CIA, Hicks' allegations of torture have gained in credibility. And it's widely held that the legal limbo he experienced in Guantanamo for much of the last decade amounted to unlawful captivity, and that we, the Australian people, deserted him in pursuing our own notions and sense of justice because the Australian government wanted it that way. His experience is an argument against all claims that Australia protects its own.
But at some point in the early 2000s, Hicks was pilloried as an entirely different sort of disgrace. He was an Australian who saw the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, and answered the call to arms of those who perpetrated it.
And, vaguely, these two discordant narratives persist. Perhaps some day the idea of Hicks as a terrorist will completely disappear, bit it seems unlikely. He has explained that his behaviour was ruled by youthful naiveté and a need to belong. But here are some facts he doesn't dispute: he met Osama Bin Laden on several occasions, and felt honoured; at one point he wrote letters to his family outlining how much he valued martyrdom and jihad; and when he was captured by the Northern Alliance he was aiding the Taliban in a military capacity.
These facts don't excuse his treatment, not even a little bit (though at one point it seemed as though they might), but they do render his reputation problematic. He is a symbol of Australia's involvement in the War on Terror. That an audience of nine hundred at the Sydney Writer's Festival once applauded him, and that Parliament recently passed a law that would likely have meant, had it been around at the turn of the century, that Hicks served a much longer term in an Adelaide jail, gives you an idea of how Australians struggle with this conflict.
George Brandis has also become something of a controversial figure. Not so much for his history with Hicks (Brandis only became a member of Cabinet toward the end of Hicks' detention, and then only as Minister for Arts and Sport) but for the agenda of the current government. He was the figurehead of a campaign to repeal or change Australia's Racial Discrimination Act, arguing that it interferes with the right to freedom of expression. And more recently, Brandis was behind the push for the implementation of a raft of anti-terror laws. Not just amendment of the law that would have applied to David Hicks, but the introduction of laws that critics have argued infringe on privacy rights, press freedom, and the ability for whistle-blowers to alert the public to government overreach.
What makes all of this fascinating is that it took place at the Human Rights Awards, a ceremony run by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The ceremony itself is seemingly worthwhile – certainly the winners seem worthy of praise – but some of the companies that sponsor its awards have faced persistent criticisms of their behaviour.
The lessons would seem to be that no human or human endeavour is perfect, or untainted by intimations of immoral behaviour. And that over many years a person will be many people – including, perhaps, a terrorist, a detainee abandoned by his government, and a heckler, easily ignored and quickly forgotten.
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