death sentence

by tobybee

so, this article from the other day from The Australian is pretty disgusting. It’s basically a press release from Transfield Services, who run the asylum seeker detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, profiling the corporate lawyer – Kate Munnings – who has been newly placed in charge of running the centres.

In the article Munnings brings together two atrocities – the Holocaust and the AIDS crisis – in a twin movement of forgetting, to suggest that the lessons learned from these two moments is that it is one’s job to run detention centres. The article says

“I didn’t do well at high school,” she says in a conference room at Transfield’s North Sydney headquarters. She became a nurse, electing in the 80s to work with HIV and AIDS patients at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital and the Albion Street AIDS Clinic.

AIDS sufferers at that time were regarded like medieval plague carriers, shunned and reviled.

“It was a death sentence back then,” Ms Munnings says. “Everyone was afraid of the disease. We would get people coming into the clinic from jail and they would be terrified to sit on the chair in the waiting room.

“Then you’d talk to them about their sexual history and it was mind-blowing. You’d be sitting there going, ‘You’re not going to get it off the chair, fellas’.”


“As a woman who comes from a very caring and compassionate profession originally, that is valuable … I have a lot of skills and a lot of background that can help with what Transfield does on both Manus and Nauru.”

A key figure in that background was her paternal grandfather, Kurt Bretal, an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis.

“They came from Germany just before the Second World War,” Ms Munnings says of her grandparents. “My grandfather spent many nights riding trains trying to avoid capture, and ironically was saved by a Nazi soldier. He always reminded me you must never assume everyone is the same, no matter how affiliated they seem to be.”

Both of those statements seem to me to be a radical mis-use of the lives, histories and memories of those people she interacted with. And what slippery language to use: “no matter how affiliated they seem to be”. Such a statement attempts to remove responsibility and deny accountability for something she is both responsible and accountable for. As though that’s the job of members of the third generation after the Holocaust: to try to show how the Nazis weren’t so bad after all, and to suggest that we live out some sort of memory of the Holocaust by imprisoning and torturing people who are escaping atrocities. That’s the worst kind of use of Holocaust memory, the complete opposite of any sort of ethical memory (we can contrast it with the use of postmemories of the Holocaust I’ve talked about before). While there are structural forces which create the detention centres – the dominance of capitalism, the persistance of a virulent nationalism, the control of populations through racialisation – there are also individual people who embrace those structures and seek to knowingly profit from them.

(If that indeed was the lesson her grandfather intended to teach her by telling that anecdote – if that is the idea of responsibility and ethics that he wished to authorise – it reminds us that survivor speech is not sacred. Some people are, quite simply, not to be listened to.)

Moreover, that she mocks the people she worked with in the AIDS clinic – as she insinuates that they were stupid and ignorant for not wanting to sit on a chair, and hopelessly and recklessly promiscuous in their sex lives – demonstrates the respect she has for people who suffer under the mistreatment of the state. If this is what she is prepared to say in public, imagine how she characterises the people she works with in private.

In these quotes Munnings goes out of her way to demonstrate the humanity of the Nazi and to demonstrate the lack of humanity of people with AIDS and those potentially with AIDS. This emphasis, of course, is completely logical within the world in which she finds herself, where she has to justify her own decisions, and work to remove the humanity of – or to make exceptional – asylum seekers (or people with AIDS, or Holocaust victims).

It’s not surprising, really. One imagines that you don’t get to that kind of position without believing in the project and using the law to help some and destroy others. But I’m left wondering if her use of the Holocaust and the AIDS crisis is sincere or cynical: does she willfully abuse these memories, or is this a moment where the violence is forgotten? And does it matter?

(hattip to Alana Lentin for the article link)