The banality of evil: Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase echoes in my brain after watching the Four Corners report on the torture of children in Northern Territory jails.
First was the swaggering, joking corrections minister John Elferink mocking Caro Meldrum-Hanna, the ABC journalist investigating crimes under his watch – gassing children in cells, physical, brute force, humiliation by stripping and other scenes of torture that could have come from Abu Ghraib in the worst days of the US occupation of Iraq.
We know now that he knew what she would reveal. In September 2015, NT child commissioner Colleen Gwynne and her predecessor Howard Bath submitted another of many reports detailing the abuse occurring in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.
Elferink oversaw the use of that horrendous chair and hood to torture and terrorise Dylan Voller, a youth who wouldn’t submit to their cruelty and who was known for spitting and having a “sharp tongue”.
Then, NT senator Nigel Scullion, Turnbull’s minister for Indigenous affairs, admitted his “interest wasn’t piqued” sufficiently by the explicit promos to bother watching the program when it aired. This is despite being aware of reports of abuse from more than a year ago. Scullion would also know that 97 percent of the youths held in Don Dale are Aboriginal.
Next is Adam Giles, NT chief minister and now self-appointed replacement of Elferink, who in 2010 said that, if given the job of corrections minister, he would put criminals in “a big concrete hole”. Giles also accused the Labor administration of being “soft, flaccid and incapable of punishing prisoners in our corrections system”, and said that he was prepared to “break every United Nations’ convention on the rights of the prisoner”.
Since Four Corners aired, each of these men has looked unblinking into cameras to feign “shock” at what was shown. Yet even as they mimic a human response to the torture of children, they can’t cover their hypocrisy. A few months earlier each of these men legislated to authorise the use of that restraint chair in the full knowledge that Dylan had been strapped into it at least three times, the first when he was 11 years old.
Is it any wonder barbarity reigns in the facilities that these, banal, cruel upholders of injustice oversee?
We could write thousands of words about the individuals who preside over, lie about and justify inhuman treatment of those in detention. Anyone with any knowledge of Black deaths in custody knows that for Indigenous people an arrest for drunkenness or an unpaid fine can end in murder by either assault or neglect of medical needs.
Radio talk-back callers, letter writers in the press, Facebook and Twitter writers call for sacking and prosecuting staff; some call for politicians to go. This should happen, but several times in the last two years guards at Don Dale have been charged over assaults on detainees such as Dylan Voller. And every time their acts have been declared legal.
Contrary to a “culture of cover-up” as Adam Giles put it, there’s a culture of criminal abuse carried out in the knowledge that the government, the courts and respectable society endorse the regime, or at least turn a blind eye.