Worthy and Unworthy Victims of Child Abuse

In recent weeks surveillance footage has broken in the Australian media of institutional abuse at the Don Dale juvenile detention facility just outside of Darwin. Needless to say this has been deeply shocking the Australian public — the graphic footage of teenagers being savagely beaten and forcibly restrained in chairs with bags over their heads all too reminiscent of the human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib. The effect of these images has not been much diminished by the fact that it took the story years to break in the face of protracted institutional resistance and willingness to turn a blind eye to what were clearly the same kinds of abuse.

This raises issues as to the institutional attitude towards child abuse, which are not much diminished by Prime Minister Turnbull response in calling a Royal Commission, and not just because their findings are not binding, and not taken as such by Australian governments which tend to ignore them. The official attitude towards the welfare of the children incarcerated in the Northern Territory, who are disproportionately from an indigenous background, is not much different to its attitude towards the welfare of those incarcerated in the Australian Gulag, our network of offshore refugee internment camps (termed ‘detention centres’ in official propaganda strategic communication, despite their inmates not having committed any crime).

But then, defenders of the status quo might rejoinder, what of the welfare of the indigenous children being sexually abused in remote communities? Is that not what the Howard Government’s famed Northern Territory Intervention, responding to claims in 2007 of child sexual abuse and neglect, was all about addressing? Well, above and beyond the fact that an independent report found that it ‘failed to deliver substantial reform in any of the areas covered by the Close the Gap goals and has also failed to meet Australia’s international human rights obligations,’ indigenous critics point to the function of the policy in practice as ‘the explicit curtailment of the rights won through the struggles of the 1960s and 70s.’

But let us not let the facts get in the way of a good story — apologists for the empire of capital never do. Even by their own logic, child abuse is, to all appearances, as rife and as much a cultural norm in Australia as domestic violence, the latter currently manifesting in epidemic proportions as violence against women explodes along with violence against individual rights per se and the propensity to take our problems on innocent bystanders. All have become habitual features of life under neoliberal capitalism.

This fact notwithstanding, the official response couldn’t be more different depending on who the victims are. In the Northern Territory, imagined or real victims of child abuse have been given prolonged attention by the federal government and corporate media, although the question of who has been responsible remains contentious to say the least. At the Don Dale juvenile detention centre in the NT and the immigration detention camp in Nauru, on the other hand, the victims are not only largely invisible, only becoming known to the public though sustained efforts to make the abuses known in the face of institutional resistance, but the abuses are perpetrated by government departments also responsible for same and purportedly devoted to serving the public welfare.

While throughout the Howard era crocodile tears shed were shed over indigenous children to establish a pretext for the Intervention, those same tears dried up in short order when the Intervention failed to achieve its stated goals — being midwife to, amongst other things, a 40% increase in Indigenous incarceration as of March 2011, many of those children winding up in everyone’s favourite facility Don Dale. The double standards could not be any more conspicuous if they were being applied on purpose, and as such speak to broader understandings in sociological discourse on moral panics, part of which treats selective concern over child abuse as part of a broader critique of, amongst other things, scare mongering and deviance production over terrorism. In this discourse, the ‘production of deviance’ is based on the subjective character of the concept of deviance per se. Deviance is ‘produced’ insofar as it is a matter of who has the power to define the meaning of the word, as against the characteristics of anyone thus labeled.

As Daniel Filler of the University of Alabama writes, ‘When Southern Baptist leader Reverend Jerry Vines recently declared that Mohammed was a “demon-possessed pedophile,” and that Allah leads Muslims to terrorism, his comments received national attention.’ Although many people dismissed them as ‘reactionary nonsense,’ Filler argues, the fact that Vines’ speech drew links between Islam, terrorism, and pedophilia is ‘far more significant than dismissive readers might have anticipated.’

While Vines’ statement was among the most explicit efforts tying Islam and terrorism to pedophilia, close scrutiny of rhetoric following September 11th suggests that this link is becoming increasingly common and natural. Why should this seemingly tenuous metaphor be consequential to legal scholars? Because this rhetorical connection may help create the social conditions necessary to support for radical detention policies that currently seem implausible.

As the politics of scare mongering and moral panic have done for millennia. ‘Yet if public anxiety soars and anger is targeted at Muslims,’ Filler adds, ‘and if the public demands internment camps, history suggests that the courts may not serve as an effective protector of civil liberties.’

In Australia, we have an example of this very process already at work, given not only the role of selective concern over child abuse in the case of the NT intervention, but also the noted role that smears against indigenous communities for the crimes of white religious officials have played in facilitating a continuation of the racist land grab that has characterised and enabled European settler colonalism in Australia from the outset. In the case of the Intervention, it quickly became clear that the policies and practices actually functioned as a means of expediting the destruction of indigenous connection to the land, vital not only to mob culture but their claims to Native Title — the weakest form of land tenure under white law. This was typically done in the name of dealing with so-called ‘unviable communities,’ communities deprived of resources as a matter of design until they became dysfunctional, at which point the dysfunctionality was pointed to as a fault of the communities thus afflicted. No tears for the children here.

Nor are there any for the refugee children locked up permanently on Nauru Island, one of the scenes of horror in the aforesaid Australian Gulag — nor for that matter, for the children of the rest of the island’s residents who live in poverty now that the island has been mined clean of its deposits of phosphate. Broke, Nauru was another easy target for successive Australian government both Tory and Laborite, who saw in their vulnerable community another opportunity to be taken advantage for its own benefit in the same way that they saw the indigenous communities in the Outback. What this demonstrates to us is that the Australian government was more than happy to act on false/overblown/misdirected allegations in the NT when it suited their purposes, and did nothing about actual allegations that it already knew about because it considers poor black kids extraneous to its primary purpose of serving its paymasters amongst the transnational corporate class who form the primary constituency of the political class as a whole, be they Australian or from anywhere else.

Where child abuse is concerned, as with every other contentious social issue and perceived exterior threat to ‘our’ way of life from terrorism to immigration to Islam, there are worthy and unworthy victims. If the Northern Territory Intervention here in Australia was based on made up stories about child abuse to justify a land grab, then the offshore gulag on Nauru was made possible by a resources grab, then made up stories to justify child abuse. In both cases the production of deviance as discussed by Daniel Filler above applies again, each manifestation of scare mongering and scapegoating functioning to render those with the power to define the meaning of deviance cause and cure of the same problem — during which time they typically take the opportunity to commit one or another institutional crime in service of their own power, privilege and self-interest in general. All of this begs the question as to if natural gas reserves need to be discovered on Nauru or underneath youth detention facilities in the Northern Territory for the Australian government to notice or give a shit about the child abuses they perpetrate.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).