Bali high

15 Jun 2005

It’s time to turn the volume down, says David Burchell

LET’S TRY for a moment to place ourselves in the position of an ordinary Indonesian citizen at present. Call it a leap of empathy, if you like.

Indonesia has become a transit point for the international drug trade. Partly in response to pressure from Western countries, our government has imposed punitive sentences for drug trafficking, and imposes them without compunction. Perhaps forty of fifty people a year are apprehended on such charges. Almost always they plead their innocence, and concoct an excuse.

One of these cases, however, involves an Australian citizen. Perhaps because she comes from a jurisdiction that retains the idiosyncratic British jury system of ascertaining guilt - where juries, it is said, are sometimes apt to be swayed by emotional appeals from young, vulnerable-looking women - she bases much of her defence upon a highly emotional appeal to the judges, and to waiting television crews.

On the face of it, though, the case is clear cut. She has been found with a large quantity of cannabis in her possession. The customs officers who apprehended her claim she acted suspiciously when they asked to open her bag, and suggest she may even have offered them a bribe. Well-connected people in Jakarta are saying that the initial tip-off about the young woman’s bag came from the Australian Federal Police themselves. There is much talk in Australia about criminal activity among airport baggage handlers, but there is no clear evidence of a connection.

In Australia, meanwhile, the case has become a national issue of the first order. The airwaves run hot. Television crews jostle for the best photos of the accused. The young woman is presented as a kind of religious martyr figure, complete with a conversion, religious advisers, and pitiable bouts of grief and wailing.

Despite the shortage of hard evidence in her favour, a sizeable number of Australian citizens are firmly convinced both of her innocence (‘you can see it in her eyes’), and of the manifest fraudulence of the legal system that convicted her. (According to a recent Age poll, supporters outnumber sceptics by almost 3 to 1, with another third undecided.) Many pledge never to visit Indonesia again. Some demand back the donations they gave to charitable organisations in the wake of the Boxing Day disaster of 2004.

Finally, a few days after the court verdict, someone sends a suspicious substance to the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra, in a seeming terror attack. Next day the newspapers and TV are reporting that there has been an ‘incident’ at the embassy - but their main concern seems to be that this may damage the young Australian woman’s chances of a successful court appeal. (As if this were more important than the lives of two dozen Indonesian Embassy staff!)

What - you ask yourself - is going on? Have Australians taken leave of their senses?

To answer this question, it’s advisable to jump back into your own skin. In order to understand recent events, you tell your Indonesian alter ego, a little bit of context is necessary. Australians have been getting a little emotional for a while now. Sometimes this is excusable, even commendable, but not always.

The story, you explain, starts in the last months of 2001. In the weeks after the jihadist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the United States, Australians become increasingly conscious of a steady flow of would-be asylum-seekers appearing in leaky boats on the fringes of Australia’s migration zone. Many are from Muslim countries in the epicentre of jihadism, the Middle and Near East.

Their appearance causes a wild and emotional public debate. Some fear that there are terrorists among them. On local railway station platforms, citizens can be heard declaring that you can just ‘tell’ that some of them aren’t ‘right’ from the TV photos. (Apparently you can see it in their eyes.) Many more fear an influx of illegal immigrants posing as refugees, and learn to steel their hearts against the emotional appeals of dubious foreigners.

In turn, the previously modestly sized refugee lobby is swollen by a vast body of concerned Australians stricken by the sight of women and children gazing out from behind razor-wire fences. Comparisons to Nazism and the death camps are freely made. Young radicals mount exercises to free the ‘prisoners’. Children’s book authors have their characters join in.

The messy questions of due legal process, and the exact status of the detainees, are brushed aside. Critics ‘know’ that the detainees are fraudulent, and insist that their appearance of distress is a performance. Supporters, on the other hand, describe them all, without exception, as refugees.

Sympathetic public figures brush aside complicating factors. Instead, they urge us to experience the issue on a direct emotional level. We should place ourselves empathetically in these people’s places, and imagine the abuses that are being carried out in Australia’s name as if they were being carried out on themselves. Some Australians do so. Others, it seems, simply determine to harden their hearts further. They’ve closed off the empathetic aorta.

These appeals reach a crescendo in the early months of 2005, when it is discovered that an emotionally disturbed young Australian woman of foreign birth has deludedly represented herself to immigration officials as an overstaying tourist. It emerges that she has been locked up for a protracted period in one of the detention centres, in a disoriented state and without proper psychiatric care.

Legal advocates of asylum seekers depict the case as archetypical. The vulnerable young woman is presented at a press conference, where she is assisted in reading out a prepared appeal claiming that she is just one of many, and that all detainees should be released immediately.

Now just about everybody - regardless of whether they read the broadsheets or listen to talkback radio - is emotionally tuned to fever-pitch, for better or for worse. Some have their humanitarian instincts aroused. Others are defensive about slights on Australian justice and its treatment of foreigners. All are sensitised to the thought that any Australian citizen may be subjected to a legal nightmare at any time, and be left unaided.

Only two great foreign calamities have been capable of uniting these opposed waves of emotional anger. The tidal waves that struck South Asia on Boxing Day 2004 had provided an opportunity for humanitarianism and national pride to be assuaged simultaneously. For a moment it had seemed our national catharsis would find a harmonious resolution.

Then, shortly after the case of Cornelia Rau, the case of Schappelle Corby hit like a second tsunami. Now humanitarianism and national pride were united once more, in the figure of the vulnerable young Australian woman held behind bars in a foreign land, perhaps for life. This time, it seems, regardless of their views on the other great national controversies, many Australian from all walks of life had made that mental effort, that emotional leap, and has come to the same conclusion. And this time we are angry together - an altogether more potent elixir.

Lest you leave your Indonesian alter ego with the wrong impression, you stress that the emotionalism of Australians is often a good thing. Had their been no outpouring of emotion over conditions in the detention centres, conditions there might never have come under scrutiny, and the question of detaining children might never have been raised. Detention may have gone on being indefinite - well, indefinitely. Now it probably won’t

In good part, it’s emotion that will have pushed the government towards a pragmatic compromise on mandatory detention, if such a compromise is found. Likewise, had Cornelia Rau not become a cause celebre, others would very likely be put through the same awful ordeal.

And as asylum-seeker advocates would not be slow to point out, ordinary Germans once trusted unemotionally in the goodwill of their authorities, with catastrophic results. (Indeed, you might hint politely, a bit more Indonesian emotion during the Suharto years may have been no bad thing.)

Yes, but your Indonesian alter ego responds. As the ancient Greeks used to say (in more high-flown terms), you can have too much of a good thing. An excess of emotion, even intended well, can be a great curse. Australians should by all means cleave to their instinctive conviction in Schappelle Corby’s innocence, so long as that’s all that’s involved..

But the emotion knob needs to be turned down a little. There are other people living in our neighbourhood, and they’re getting sick of the noise. Why, this is the way neighbourhood feuds begin. •

David Burchell is a lecturer in humanities at the University of Western Sydney and associate editor of APO.

Photo: Kok Chuan Wong/

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