Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Michael Leunig: They know not what they do

A moving piece by Australia’s much loved cartoonist and artist Michael Leunig about Australian Gitmo detainee David Hicks, his father’s fight for justice and the tentacles of militarism. The Australian government’s response has been pitiful. Hicks has been held for five years, until recently without charge.

They know not what they do
by Michael Leunig
The Age | 10 February, 2007

In Terry Hicks’ plea for his son’s life we see a microcosm of humanity’s struggle against militarism, writes Michael Leunig.

THERE was an outside chance that he just may have, possibly, harmed American soldiers if he had the opportunity and happened to feel like it at the time, perhaps. Or so they say.

They put him in a concentration camp for the crime of that possibility, and kept him there, a million miles from home for five terrible years without trial.

When they had finished with him – when they had crushed and tormented him enough and weakened him sufficiently and driven him half-mad, and displayed him to the world as an example – they tied his hands behind his back and ordered him to defend himself against all their might and final fury.

This may all sound a bit unfair, but make no mistake, when it comes to making the world a better place – whether by bombing countries back to the Stone Age or by pulling the wings off flies, these military-minded gentlemen from the land of the free and the home of the brave know exactly what they’re doing.

Or so they say.

Defending oneself against American know-how, although a universal problem, is never easy. But when the delusional self-righteousness of the prosecution is so fierce and extreme, to defend oneself is only to face the final climactic round of torture.

How may a man explain his innocence to a culture hell-bent on war and conquest? How does a broken heart stand against the vindictive and merciless onslaught of a militarised state tangled in its blinding web of anger, hypocrisy and paranoia? What does the floundering soul of a common man mean beside the greatest array of advanced homicidal technology and expertise ever assembled in the world? And just how does an exhausted little David in chains defend himself against such a ferocious Goliath?

God knows.

There is something deeply forlorn and yet greatly inspiring in seeing a father addressing a small gathering on a busy street corner in the city at lunchtime about the life-threatening injustice inflicted by America in the name of righteousness upon his son, so isolated and so far across the sea.

The quiet, steady bearing of Terry Hicks as he speaks about the mad Goliath’s incarceration of his son, David, is sobering and profoundly touching – especially so to men who have sons, or affectionate memories of their fathers, or a sense that love and justice are like father and son.

His words are clear and to the point. And the down-to-earth dignity of Hicks senior brings order and perspective to the meaning of life as the lunchtime crowd hurries past in the sunshine.

Terry Hicks is a man of human scale in a political world that has all but eradicated or abandoned such a dimension. And by his measure we may see the extent to which our political system is losing its mind and our ethical system is collapsing.

Apart from all the things that he may be or may fail to be, there is an archetypal sense in which he represents not only the eternal father, but also the simple democratic man who stands up alone and plainly says “No” and steadfastly asks “Why?” in the face of monstrous state power that has gradually twisted and transformed itself into a heartless, dysfunctional and idiotic beast.

But his strength and equanimity are never more evident on that day than when an elderly man scuttles by half-hidden in the crowd and cries out, “Kill the bastard!” The crowd draws its breath and the scuttling man disappears like a ghost but his malignancy remains: an ancient dark curse against Terry Hicks’ unfortunate son who, according to law, is at this stage innocent of any harm to the world.

The father, with the cry for his son’s death hanging in the air, continues calmly with his appeal for justice. But the savagery of the hit-and-run words hover like a foul revelation, reminding all present of why they had come to this street vigil and what it was they were upholding; and about the power of cruelty and ignorance, which would always be there like an incurable, archaic disease in human affairs.

Yet “Kill the bastard” is more than a curse – it’s the most precious uncut gem in the crown of military philosophy and the ideological centrepiece of imperial power. “KILL THE BASTARD” is scrawled on rockets and tanks but is also the simple sacred text inscribed in gold and kept in a secret vault in the deepest, darkest inner sanctum of state authority. When men stop believing in “Kill the bastard” the world as we know it will fall apart because raising armies of aggression and building empires of domination will become impossible. To perpetuate the systems of power and authority it has been necessary to encode “Kill the bastard” into sophisticated signals and transmit them to children from day one.

But the scuttling little man who was letting it slip in public was more than just a vile creep; he, too, was an archetype – a black angel with an important message. If, in a democracy, the leaders represent and speak for the people, then it must be remembered that the people unwittingly speak on behalf of the leaders – out loud in the street or in the ordinary banter of life. The people let the cat out of the bag by openly saying the things that no guarded, wily politician dares to reveal or even confess to their own heart – the very politician who may be unleashing “Kill the bastard” forces on the world in the name of freedom.

It is easily forgotten that in a democracy representation is unwittingly mutual, if only you dare to see it; it is a two-way umbilical psychic relationship between the electors and the elected. The hit-and-run hate merchant in the street is no mere vulgar aberration, but a vital component of the collective homicidal wish that underlies the militarism on which the unhealthy state and its executives ultimately depend for their authority.

Without the scuttling man and his ilk there can be no great empire. Without him, the Prime Minister has no fear buttons to press and no hate votes to harvest. He would be forced to do some real man’s work and be a creative leader.

But if you want to hear the secret personal views of the Prime Minister and cabinet go, if you dare, and eavesdrop for an hour or two in the smelly old toilet at the pub on a Saturday night after the football. You may quickly be reminded of why the planet has been environmentally and emotionally screwed up – and how little political leaders have known or wanted to understand the consequences of their actions and failings while in power.

You may also understand, in spite of all the pomp and ceremony, just how idiotic they have been. One cannot help but wonder if there is something in the nature of those who seek power that ought to disqualify them from wielding it. Are they attracted to political conflict because they are in conflict – and so bound to create conflict?

Just as the disastrous and irreversible consequences of environmental abuse take generations to come home to roost, so, too, do the complicated effects of war take time to spread across the face and psyche of humanity. The victors and the vanquished are equally ruined by war – in time we are all poisoned.

It is difficult to comprehend that a president or a prime minister would not understand this vital psycho-ecological principle. It is hard, also, to accept that as one part of humanity seeks to heal the planet another part seeks to burn it up and ruin it with war – just as in the street one man calls for justice and mercy and the other man calls hatefully for death.

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"