The Cost of Looking Away

In light of the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, Simon Smart questions the cost to Australia's national conscience when we look away.

“Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” Proverbs 24:11-12

All week I have been trying to imagine the level of desperation you would have to be experiencing to find yourself climbing onto the outside of an enormous taxiing jet and holding on while it takes off. What could you be hoping for? The scenes of men clinging to the side and clambering onto the landing gear of a C-17 US military aircraft as it lumbered towards take off from Kabul airport, and then apparently falling to their deaths after take-off, will be a defining image for the last gasp of a twenty-year campaign for allied troops in the region.

Taliban leaders have been promising a generous and peaceful takeover with no heavy-handed treatment of the civilian population or retribution against those who were previously considered on the side of the enemy. But early signs are very concerning. The Wall Street Journal reports that Afghans fleeing to Kabul from Taliban-held areas are telling of executions of surrendering soldiers, attacks on civilians and communities being forced to hand over unmarried women to Taliban fighters. The scenes at Kabul airport begin to make sense within that context.

Is there anything beyond shoulder-shrugging resignation we can offer in response?

There are reasonable questions to be answered regarding the apparent inertia of our government in moving to help those who have assisted Australian forces when the situation was clearly reaching crisis point in recent weeks. The plight of those left behind doesn’t bear thinking about.

The Prime Minister says Australia will take 3000 Afghans over the next year, with the possibility of increasing that number, but at this stage it will not add to our overall intake. That means others in similarly hopeless circumstances will miss out.

Surely we can do more. Arguments about refugee and asylum seeker intake are complex and endless but the heavy moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan—especially those who have contributed to allied efforts in the country—is surely uncontroversial.

Australia has had its moments of largesse when it comes to acting on behalf of people in urgent and obvious danger. Bob Hawke’s response to the Tiananmen Square massacre was more than simply the emotion of the day. 42,000 Chinese found a home in Australia as a result. Malcolm Fraser paved the way for 50,000 Vietnamese to arrive here, and 12000 Syrians fleeing the barbarous ISIS arrived under Tony Abbott. Would there be many among us who would regret those decisions?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, speaking in the House of Lords this week, left no one in any doubt about where he stood in terms of Britain’s responsibilities:

“We owe an absolute, lavishly generous moral covenant to all those who are at risk because they served with us in Afghanistan or took seriously our frequently professed commitment to its future, women and girls included. … This is about morals not numbers.”

Morals not numbers.

To mirror something like what Welby is calling for, will require a determined and heroic resistance of the dominant mindset of bureaucratic modernity and its means-ends morality. It’s not only in immigration policy we see this dynamic. All of us are to some extent subject to environments whereby “practicalities” tend to reign over moral obligations and considerations of common humanity.

Luke Glanville, Associate Professor of International Relations at ANU, believes our refugee policy of recent years is somehow damaging our national soul. Speaking to the Life & Faith podcast he said, “I think we in the West have told ourselves that part of our mission is to constantly seek to secure ourselves against the rest of humanity, including refugees. I think it’s been disastrous for our national health, and wellbeing, and happiness. I think there’s a real hollowness that we feel in Australia and elsewhere in the West, as we’re aware of the enormous harm that we’re doing to vulnerable outsiders.”

Conversely, a rapid, costly and extravagant welcome and settling of Afghan refugees fleeing a truly terrible situation could become something we’d come to feel justly proud of. Imagine that. The book of Proverbs in the Old Testament offers some ancient encouragement to prioritise the stranger in need, the afflicted at our doorstep. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute,” the writer says. He could be addressing all of us.

Rational heads will tell me I’m getting all emotional. Well maybe I am. But I’m weary of pragmatic answers to challenging problems that immediately appeal to the head and not the heart. There is a cost to generosity. Risk as well. I know that. But there is also a cost that comes from looking away.

Simon Smart is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.