Puncturing Pomposity

TMS PEACE JOURNALISM, 27 September 2010

Jake Lynch – TRANSCEND Media Service

Proposition: the pomposity of self-satisfied elites serves to normalise the unthinkable. Edward Herman, writing about Hannah Arendt’s concept of the ‘banality of evil’, says: “This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as ‘the way things are done’.”

To puncture pomposity, wherever it is found, is a worthy and longstanding tradition of newspapering. Journalism should comfort the afflicted, one early exponent wrote, and afflict the comfortable. Irony, wit, cheek and sarcasm are all ways to empower readers to look over the shoulder of groups of anoraks, exchanging jargon with each other, and have a laugh at their expense.

It is in the media-fuelled rise of ‘security’, as a governing concept in our lives, that these two observations intersect. When I was a student, ‘security’ meant the men in ill-fitting dark suits on the door of the Union building on a Friday night. Now, no self-respecting campus is complete without some form of ‘security studies’. Its influence coils through government departments and the corporate sector, no less than universities. There is wisdom in this branch of scholarship, of course, but a “securocratic mentality” – the term was coined in Northern Ireland – can also lead us into folly.

Talking of folly, the Australian government remains committed to the war in Afghanistan, despite longstanding opposition from a majority of the public, in the name of our ‘security’. The claim that, if our troops pull out, the next thing we know, Al Qaida will have ‘re-grouped’ and be preparing to attack us, has been comprehensively demolished, not least in the latest annual survey from that well-known bunch of peaceniks, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Such insights seldom perturb politicians here, however, because media coverage generally ignores any perspective on the conflict from outside the two main parties, and the military establishment. (Another obvious missing element is any voice for Afghans themselves).

Exempted, in effect, from proper media scrutiny, Australia’s security and foreign-policy-wallahs generally rub along, unperturbed, serving the interests of their members and clients. Another example was the government’s pusillanimous response to last year’s violence in Sri Lanka, and international efforts to raise the alarm over what appeared to be serious and large-scale violations of the laws of war.

The military defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels brought further concerns in its wake, over the human rights of thousands of detainees, and the still-deteriorating political situation. These are well understood by political and media circles in much of the watching world, but have often seemed to fall strangely flat in Australia. There has, instead, been a ready reception for apologists for the Sri Lankan government, to put forward a Panglossian picture of post-war conditions on the island, of “stability and inter-ethnic reconciliation”.

When the author of those remarks – from a column in the Australian newspaper – was invited to speak on ‘counter-insurgency lessons from Sri Lanka’, at a prestigious security conference in the capital, Canberra, it therefore seemed a good opportunity to let a bit of hot air out of the self-serving elite ‘security’ discourse, by making merry at their expense, and pointing out a few home truths.

However, the column that follows these introductory remarks proved impossible to place in the Australian written press, where the tradition of puncturing pomposity seems ill-understood. The humour struck an “inappropriate” tone, one editor sniffed. Too many journalists here are still trying to write – or edit – by numbers, and remain, as a result, trapped by political orthodoxies like the excessive seriousness with which some in the ‘security community’ regard themselves and their nostrums. The reader is too often reminded of George Orwell in Politics and the English Language: “orthodoxy of any kind seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style”. There is an excess of literalism and linearity: not so much dumbing down as dulling down.

Thankfully, there are abundant creative responses to this state of affairs, notably by independent media such as the enterprising web-based news and comment service, Crikey (www.crikey.com.au), where the following column first appeared:

What Can Australia Learn From Sri Lanka About ‘Security’?

The cream of Australia’s security establishment are gathering in the plush surroundings of Canberra’s Rydges Lakeside hotel for their annual shindig, the ‘Safeguarding Australia Summit’.

The list of sponsors reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the military-industrial-media-academic complex: the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; the universities of Melbourne and New South Wales; defence contractor Thales and the Australian Defence Business Review, to name but a few. The after-dinner speaker is none other than the US Ambassador, Jeffrey Bleich.

For a cool $795, delegates can gain admission to the showpiece event, a one-day conference on ‘threats and responses’, where they will hear a presentation from one Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe, who is studying for a Masters degree at Curtin University and is billed as ‘Analyst, South Asian and Indian Ocean Region Politics and Security’.

The theme of his talk is ‘Counter-insurgency Lessons from Sri Lanka’. Boasting of his contacts with the Sri Lankan government, Mr DeSilva-Ranasinghe does seem to be able to reach some influential audiences. Earlier this week, he addressed military and government officials in a talk at the Royal United Services Institute of the ACT, giving a free preview of the line he is likely to take at the ‘Summit’.

The RUSI talks take place under Chatham House rules, so nothing can be attributed directly, but it is not too much of a risk to predict that Safeguarding Australia delegates will hear recommendations to boost troop numbers ‘in theatre’, in order to hold territory (with particular reference to the Afghanistan ‘troop surge’); that diplomatic backing, from neighbouring countries, is vital and that public support and ‘vigilance’ are indispensable in preventing ‘terrorist’ attacks.

So far, so familiar: the typical rhetoric of ‘security’ experts, who seem to have proliferated on countless TV screens over recent years. To contemplate such strictures in the context of Sri Lanka today is, however, to pass through a looking-glass in which the unthinkable is in the process of being ‘normalised’.

The ‘vigilance committees’ sponsored by Colombo tend to be likened, by people like Mr DeSilva-Ranasinghe, to Australia’s own ‘neighbourhood watch’ schemes, but the comparison makes them sound misleadingly innocuous. Given his remarks at RUSI, it would be no surprise if his conference speech went on to describe how reports from local sources were, during the war against the Tamil Tigers, ‘streamlined into the intelligence bureaucracy’ and ‘passed up the line’ so suspected militants could be ‘rapidly intercepted and eliminated’.

Time and again, independent observers, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, sounded the alarm over the systematic disregard for the rule of law that saw thousands of Tamils seized and tortured, imprisoned without trial or simply ‘disappeared’ – spirited away in the infamous white vans favoured by the intelligence bureaucracy, never to be seen again.

Australian-based supporters of the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa have attempted to play down such aspects of the conflict. United Nations sources briefed journalists that the casualty count from the final stage of the ‘counter-insurgency campaign’, in the early months of last year, included at least 7,000 civilians, with the true number almost certainly much higher. Now, the president’s brother, defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, claims the bodies of rebel soldiers were dressed up in civilian clothes to exaggerate the numbers.

The human rights monitoring groups were being ‘misled’; the UK’s Channel Four News, which screened a mobile phone video showing Tamil detainees being executed in cold blood, had been ‘duped’; concerns over conditions in the internment camps, where hundreds of thousands were corralled after the end of the war, were ‘misplaced’, according to the government line.

But there is an overhang of injustice from this sequence of events, which, if left unaddressed, risks plunging Sri Lanka back into violence at some time in the future. The nature of the counter-insurgency campaign itself has bequeathed one of the biggest problems: the island’s power elite, from the Rajapaksa brothers down, are implicated in what there is a very good case for regarding as unpunished war crimes.

A report from the US State Department collated eyewitness accounts of civilian deaths, including several in which Tiger fighters had been using villagers as ‘human shields’. But the vast majority detailed incidents of bombing and shelling that can only have come from the government side.

Unlike Australia – and about four-fifths of the international community – Sri Lanka has never signed up to the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, intended to strengthen protection for non-combatants. “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians”, they say, “does not deprive the population of its civilian character”.

Insurgents are never going to want to go ‘toe-to-toe’ in the conflict arena with a conventional military force, but rather, to emerge, briefly, from a community, then blend back in. The vast majority of countries regard that as the lesser of two evils: the greater evil would be to attack regardless. In Sri Lanka’s ‘counter-insurgency’ campaign it was the other way round.

That should caution us against attempting to ‘learn lessons’ from the likes of Mr DeSilva-Ranasinghe. And we should keep a focus on the continuing suppression of government critics, civil society, and media; the restricted access for independent monitors to the northern and eastern parts of the country where the fighting occurred and the disturbing lack of information about an estimated 8,000 alleged Tamil Tiger fighters currently detained, without trial, in so-called ‘rehabilitation camps’ that remain closed to outside observers.

Australia has been notably backward in joining international efforts to press these concerns. It never backed the call, by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Judge Navi Pillay, for an independent international investigation of alleged war crimes. It did not join the European Union in making trade conditional on improved behaviour, or the US and some European countries which tried to apply a squeeze through the International Monetary Fund.

Instead, Canberra appeared preoccupied with securing Sri Lanka’s cooperation in forestalling boat departures of refugees, and the political problems they might bring in their wake. Perhaps that is why blandishments of the kind likely to be served up with the vols-au-vents at the Rydges can be expected to go down well with many of the delegates.

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Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 September 2010.

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3 Responses to “Puncturing Pomposity”

  1. A thought provoking piece that goes to show how difficult it is to expose the truth when the media itself is taken in by the spin that governments and their agents are able to generate.

    The war in Sri Lanka was won because the strategy was based on ‘genocide’. Indiscriminate killing under diplomatic cover provided by powerful regimes was all that was required.