July 9, 2020

A Midnight On Suffering

Cruel and unusual is one of those phrases that pop up during great scriptwriting of independent films. It is usually referred to in the context of punishment that is disproportionately applied to crime or human suffering that is intolerable – or rather beyond what basic human rights will condone as ‘ought to be tolerated’.

In that context, it is easy to conjure visual imagery of Jean Valjean in prison gang chains for stealing a loaf of bread: He is looking down, scars of the lash on his back from days spent in hard labour, and he is reciting his prisoner number at the beginning of Les Miserables.

“People will stand almost anything, so long as they know when it is going to end.”

My father grew up in NSW farms with prisoners of war during WWII who were mostly Italians providing labour to the farms while our young men were becoming ANZAC legends in European and Pacific theatres of war. The physical conditions at the time were of the time but they were in the dramatic preference to the Australian POW experiences in other countries, particularly in Japan from which men had returned to the Australian farms truly broken from the cruelty.

The rod and the lash have had a way of dominating how we think about cruel punishment but my father had observed from his childhood and later military career that human bodies could withstand severe ordeal, but the mind was the differentiator for survivors.

He used to comment that, “People with withstand almost anything, so long as they know when it is going to end.”

Knowing that end date – to have a midnight on suffering – was the great preserver of hope. Hope sustains the mind. The mind sustains all.

Fast forward to arguably more civilised times and while there is no doubt still corporal punishments that need to be addressed, we have some understanding of the torture that is implicit in not knowing when suffering will end.

Jumping back to the context of justice, there is a recognition now that an indeterminate sentence is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. For those unaware of the criticism that Australia has drawn from the UN, from Human Rights Watch, from Amnesty International and from the International Community and concerned humanitarians across the globe for its treatment of asylum seekers – much of the criticism has related to the indeterminate nature of the civil sentence – they are in detention, without autonomy, and there is no indication of when the sentence will end.

Indeterminate – adj – not exactly known, established, or defined.

The office of The High Commission of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights has repeatedly criticised Australia stating that the indefinite duration of punishment is a major contributing factor to the conditions of asylum seeker detention that make the punishment “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment inflicting serious psychological harm.”

If you have not been particularly woke or empathetic to the plight of asylum seekers in Australia, some prescribed reading is the award-winning Behrouz Boochani’s “No Friend But The Mountains”, written in Manus Detention Centre.

That being said, this is not intended to be a political piece by any means, and I am slowly meandering to a point.

“When will it end?” is possibly the single most prominent question of every soul in the world right now. “Bring this to an end” is the collective prayer. During Covid-19 we have had an unique human experience of sympathy, and while Australians have been incredibly fortunate to escape the ravages of the virus on the body to a relative extent – the indeterminate nature of the confinement is without doubt both cruel and unusual.

For our brothers and sisters in Melbourne now back into lockdown, it can be shallow to offer the comfort that “this is temporary”. Sure the current order might be for six weeks, but then into the unknown the indeterminacy of “then what?” or “where next?” has us anxiously glued to our phones counting cases, constantly tracking and speculating.

The state of indeterminacy can be exhausting.

Yet tossed around by a sea of what we cannot control, we can cling to hope and the things that we can control. We can survive the indeterminacy by taking lessons from other survivors.

Ever seen pictures of prisoners who scratch tallies on the wall to count time? To construct time, oddly, gives us control over it. You can create the dawn and the dusk according to your plans and you become the master of days in the face of uncertainty.

Planning 2020 was a bust, so we work on a month at a time. If the months become unpredictable, we take things week by week – you can break life down into 15 minute innings if you need to, but that process of creating and reaching finish lines in small chunks during indeterminacy is the antidote to surrender.

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