The ship has sailed and like the troops on board we other Australians at home are afraid. We are entering a time, under the catch-all legitimation of the ‘war on terror’, that will be marked by constant conflict. When the enemy is indistinct and the threat of attack is seen as pervasive, then a war footing can become a way of life. We are in danger, not just from bombs and gas attacks but also from the fear of those attacks. The risk of a self-perpetuating state of alarm and readiness for war can be seen in the strange conflation of Osama bin Laden with Saddam Hussein. In the pursuit of the forever absent ‘smoking gun’, this war will find its enemies where it can.
With the launch of Australia’s national security campaign — made up of the almost oxymoronic slogan ‘Be alert but not alarmed’ and the vague reliance on a suspicious common sense ‘if it doesn’t add up, ring up’ — the Federal government has instituted a culture of fear. This should be regarded as a propagation of anxiety rather than any real attempt to gather intelligence. Aside from serving as a prop for the delusions of the mentally ill, the call for Australians to act as individual surveillance units is surely an attempt to activate fearfulness, fuel suspicion and to set the populace into a state of alarm that will be placated only with war elsewhere and ever increased controls at home. But the real long term, social change that this culture puts in train is the transformation of what it is to be part of the nation. What positive manifestations of community that the nation can offer are displaced, making way for a kind of negative grouping around common dread.
In his book Against Paranoid Nationalism, Ghassan Hage describes the new centrality of this fearful culture:
The culture of ‘worrying’ which was initially most pronounced among the supporters of the extreme-right … has now become the dominant cultural form of expressing one’s belonging to the nation.
Under ‘paranoid nationalism’ there is an eradication of the ‘very possibility of thinking of an alternative mode of belonging’. Recognising that we live in a time when you might be murdered in your workplace or blown-up on the dance-floor, some could claim that our present state is not so much a case of paranoia as that of justified fear. But as we properly recoil from the atrocities of September 11 and the Bali bombing we should also be wary of the corrosive uses of fear. Hage goes on to describe the rise of paranoid nationalism, which preceded those terrorist actions, being characterised by the way the aggressive and exclusive qualities of the border become generalised across national society as a whole. The separation of interior and exterior becomes compromised. The usually hidden exertion of state-power at the border becomes an explicit aspect of the interior life of the nation. While the nation should critically acknowledge the exclusion on which it is based, the social consequences of an entrenched paranoid nationalism are dire. Such a society — cut across with the mechanisms of surveillance and coercion — diminishes the ethical bond of care and is unable to provide hope to its members. In Australia, the truncation of belonging by fear is a betrayal of the future of a nation that was just beginning to reconfigure what it means to be here, what it means to be us.
A more immediate betrayal, stemming from paranoid nationalism, is the maltreatment of those who are the victims of exactly the sort of insecurity that this war is supposed to be against. The asylum seekers abandoned to the so called ‘Pacific solution’ and imprisoned in the suburbs or deserts of Australia are the figures of a nation’s failure to understand itself as more than an aggressive aggregate of fears. In the context of a war that seems able to shift its enemies in and out of focus, asylum seekers — in their otherness, their abjection, their deracination — become the at-hand embodiment of a changeable foe. The unlamented Peter Reith said as much during the ‘children overboard’ affair: asylum seekers could be terrorists. But to maintain and exploit the culture of fear it is not enough to make this association. Refugees must be kept in view as figures of suspicion while they are held out of physical contact with the community. The distancing effect of an image allows for the easy construction of monsters — the child drowner, the nightclub bomber — but the proximity of human need can draw people back toward the communal ethics of hospitality, reciprocity and care. A telling aspect of the Tampa crisis was the fact that the people of Christmas Island went against the national majority and were keen for the asylum seekers to land. That isolated island community might point a way out of the paranoid formation of belonging into which this larger island has been led.
The national security campaign informs us that this effort of surveillance is all in the name of keeping Australia ‘friendly, decent and democratic’. Yet in instituting a culture of worrying over a culture of care this campaign sets about dismantling the qualities it professes to protect. The hope for the future of those virtues and values in Australia is not in the imperilled hands of the troops who have been sent to shore-up the strategic and economic interests of the US in the Gulf, nor is it in the sweating palm of the citizen reciting their fears to the national security data bank. The resources of hope rest with those who will enact their care by opposing this war in the streets, in their work and in the parliaments.