My high school politics and law teacher was a peculiar man. We will call him Dan. His classroom ceiling was covered with flags of almost every country, but he was severely racist. He was a white, middle-aged man and a publicly-declared Trump supporter. He would frequently play the devil’s advocate in class, or so he would claim.
My most prominent memory of him was when he declared, unprovoked, “The most dangerous threat to the world right now is Islam”. Never mind climate change.
One student, we will call him Charlie, was of East Asian descent. Although he wasn’t Muslim, Charlie would later tell me that Dan’s comment made him furious because similar rhetoric was used to justify xenophobia against Chinese Australians at the time.
Charlie argued back, “So when we go to the Middle East and kill innocent civilians, who is the threat then?”.
“Those are justified. Military work can be a bit tricky,” Dan confidently replied. Note: he had no military experience.
Dan’s comments terrified me on two levels.
First, he held a torchlight on my religion, my identity, the prayer mat in my room, the Qurans on our bookshelves, my father’s name, ‘Mohammad’, and my mother’s hijabs. I felt immense shame and a drastic need to hide, to hide the mat, hide the Qurans. They are going to find us, and when they do, they will call us a threat, and they will kill us.
The second: the ease with which he justified killing.
This was July 2020. Four months later, the Brereton Report was released.
The Brereton report detailed alleged war crimes committed by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) during the war in Afghanistan. It found 39 innocent non-combatant Afghans were killed by the Australian Special Forces in 23 incidents. Two were tortured. None of the incidents took place during battle. Special Forces soldiers believed they were entitled to kill, and subordinate soldiers followed through on orders with unflinching obedience.
The report was a scandal. It damaged the Australian public image: our publicly-funded military, with all its expensive weapons, was going bat-shit in Afghanistan. What ensued was the first stage of grief: denial. Denying that anything went wrong.
The ADF’s redemption proposal to remove any meritorious citations of Special Force soldiers who served in Afghanistan provoked widespread anger. The conception that our men could be humiliated was too painful. The conception that our men could slaughter and humiliate Afghans, however, lived comfortably in our conscience.
In many ways, these men behaved in an Australian way: larrikin, rule-breaking, rowdy and xenophobic. Australia did not see them as war criminals; they were boys being boys.
Excusing war criminals is nothing new in Anglo-Celtic countries. America does it too, to a more damning extent with their Presidents formally pardoning war criminals. It comes with the double standards entrenched deep in first-world nations. We love your food, but we hate you. Terrorism is bad, but the war crimes we commit aren’t that bad.
Scholars argue that public opinion on war crimes changes when the public is exposed to the details of war crimes. After the arrest of Special Air Service Officer Oliver Schulz earlier this year, much changed.
Oliver Schulz shot a man lying on a wheat field in Afghanistan. The man did nothing. He just lay there and held his prayer beads. His name was Mohammad. He was not a combatant. He had two kids.
Schulz’s arrest was a scandal. Excruciating evidence of murder was now on public display. Denial was no longer feasible. Australia had seemingly jumped to acceptance. Promises were made to the Afghan people. Defamation cases against free press were lost. Reforms were promised. For the first time, the word shame has been used. Shame on the ADF. Just the ADF?
The xenophobic sentiments that enabled these individual criminal acts permeated through the whole scope of government policy. During the same time these crimes were taking place, Operation Sovereign Borders was introduced. Muslim communities in Australia suffered increased invasions of privacy. Asylum seekers as young as ten years old (many of whom were unaccompanied by their family) were being held in mandatory detention centres. Australia in the early 2010s did not bat an eye at these occurings on their own land. In fact, the Australian public encouraged and contributed to this xenophobia. A decade later, the same public gasps at the product of its very own hatred.
Calling the ADF’s war crimes a “scandal” voids us of collective responsibility. Scandals are breaks in conventions. The perpetrators are deers caught in a headlight, and we are in the car—a very active separation. “Scandal” lets us stand on the sidelines while we point at and gossip about those few in the circle of shame. When the circle expands to hold us too, we refuse to accept the responsibility.
When evidence of xenophobia erupts as it did with Oliver Schultz and Ben Roberts-Smith, it’s easier for White Australia to throw up its hands, declaring, “We had nothing to do with this”, and label it a scandal. To take responsibility for being racist, White Australia would have to imprison itself in a pillory with the words “This nation is racist” on it. It entails public humiliation, dishonor and shame, but most importantly accountability—something White Australia dodges every time.
At the ANU, I meet people who plan to enroll for military service, and although I suppress it, a small voice in my head whispers, “Would they?“. In a different world, if I didn’t have the privilege to live in this country, and they were a soldier with a weapon, would they shoot me? The majority of Islamaphobic attacks in Australia are geared towards hijabi Muslim women. If I am the target in this land, where I speak the language and identify with the culture, what guarantees that I would be safe from an armed soldier in a foreign land, where I am explicitly the “other”?
It’s unfair to compare war criminals with patriotic twenty-year-olds. For all I know, they might break the circle. But at no point in former VC Ben Robert-Smiths’ history as a decorated soldier was there a warning that he would kick a hand-cuffed Afghan man off the cliff, or that he would murder a disabled Afghan man, and then encourage his patrol to drink beer out of his prosthetic leg.
Xenophobia courses through the veins of the ADF, but the ADF is not an isolated institution. Soldiers believed it was morally, if not legally, permissible to harm their victim. They looked at Afghans, and they barely saw a human. The soldiers’ moral ignorance, which allowed them to mercilessly shoot down weeping, begging humans and then justify their crimes, did not magically appear in Afghanistan.
Back home, White Australia sees BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) as problems, not people, who either need to be caged, sent back or killed. This continues through multiple white supremacist attacks on BIPOC communities each year, the over-incarceration of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people, the Manus Island detention center, and the rising xenophobia towards Chinese Australians during the pandemic and diplomatic conflicts with China.
The allegation that Australia is racist is confronting, and that war crimes are a manifestation of racism is even more agonizing. “Racist” is a dirty word. For BIPOC, it’s a powerful word. To call someone a racist is often the only power BIPOC has against injustice. Like a criminal caught in the spotlight, the racist becomes the centre of shame, a remnant of Australia’s colonial past, against the backdrop of a nation that is apparently, as claimed by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “the most successful multicultural nation on Earth”.
When ANU Confessions caught fire last semester, after it was (rightfully) claimed that Burton and Garran Hall was racist, it was another “scandal”. In reality, BnG isn’t unique or “scandalous”. Racism is symptomatic of the wider elitist culture at ANU and denying we are racist is a part of it. Almost every discussion about racism here is interrupted by, “But that isn’t racist”, or “It was never like that for me”.
Our student politics discuss racism once every blue moon. This is perhaps because we have some of the lowest voter turnout for ANUSA elections. My bet is that the turnout is even lower for POC (People of Colour) students, who remain disengaged from a student government that barely looks like them.
We have incredibly low levels of student diversity. The ANU shows no momentum to increase POC enrolment. Our CASS classrooms are overwhelmingly white. The content is white-washed and the authors we reference in our essays are seldom POC. I walk into every Philosophy tutorial feeling alienated, with a nagging sense that no one in the class really wants me there, and a voice whispers in my head, “This isn’t where you belong. The decisions about the world are made by white people. Your job is to quietly abide”.
The Brereton report did not use the words Muslim, Islam, Islamophobia or racism. The report would be more confronting if it had, because then it wouldn’t be an ADF problem, it would be admitting that Australia has a problem with Muslims. Australia does have a problem with Muslims. Dan had a problem with Muslims. Schulz and Robert-Smiths both had problems with Muslims. The solution was to apparently kill them. As the accusations in the Brereton report continue to unfold, it’s important to remember they are not outliers. Muslims did not not gasp at the Brereton report, most of us saw this coming. The rest of you should have too.
We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.