ONCE upon a time massacres were crimes committed against the people by oppressive regimes: Peterloo, St Petersburg, Amritsar. Horrific as they were, they were events comprehensible as the actions of despotic power seeking to use brutal force to deny people what people wanted as communities and societies: their freedom.
In recent times, in the course of this, the most brutal of centuries, two new ideas arose. One was the notion that if you had a grievance that you could vent it through the mass-murder of others. Though not a legitimate idea, it is one celebrated and, in a strange way, honoured, increasingly in much popular and high culture. As older notions of community and society gave way to the rise of the notion of us as only an aggregrate of consuming individuals, another idea also gained currency: that our enemies are those around us, that the enemy is within. From the Oklohama bombing to the assassination of Rabin, we now fear our own, and our own fear us.
So the path to Port Arthur was made, littered with the corpses of so many other recent acts of horrendous violence, and the gunman today needed to make no great conceptual or imaginative leap, but seek only to emulate and, one senses in the extraordinary number of deaths, perhaps compete with all his predecessors.
Of course, as Tasmanians we should not have perhaps got so precious about our distance from violence which was only a momentary hole in both space and time.Tasmania was a society begat in great violence: against the Aborigines, the convicts, and the land itself. Ironically Port Arthur was the end of the line of an imperial system of terror, the Devils Island of its day, the greatest of all institutional embodiments of ritualised violence. As a tourist site it has been sanitised, its meanings restricted to the largely superficial: picturesque ruins in the most beautiful, sylvan setting. ‘Port Arthur will never be the same,’ a friend said to me, and they were both right and wrong. It won’t be the same as it was for many years prior to today, but the gunman’s bullets also firmly connect a present and past world of horrific violence, and only the unravelling of events will tell us how intentional his choice of sites was.
We had the vanity to believe that we were somehow different
Perhaps we in Tasmania had forgotten what Primo Levi called ‘our essential fragility.’ We had the vanity to believe we were somehow different, that the currents of change did not wash so far south, to this distant, remote, most beautiful land. We still believed that here a mutual trust held, that we were a people here for others and others for us, and maybe it was never entirely true, but we needed to believe it, for we had little else, and with each year the island went further backwards. On any social or economic indicator Tasmania is the poorest state in Australia and getting poorer. I wonder what will become of us, now that even this myth of our goodness has been taken from us.
As I am writing this, the siege of the gunman continues. Details are few and unreliable, except for the body count, which continues to rise. As of yet, so little is known and yet some things seem clear. We must have strong laws that forbid the ownership of semi-automatic and automatic weapons, and which make the licensing of shooters as stringent as possible, and these laws must be enacted as a matter of the utmost priority. It is wrong to blame what happened on movies or other forms of popular culture. But it is right to ask for a culture that stops being so obsessed with the moment of violence, and instead starts to examine the consequences of violence, and then not simply in terms of physical injury and mutilation, but in the decades and often generations of suffering that ensue. There does seem about the whole horrific affair a dreadful cinematic gloss, from the wisecrack at the door of the restaurant about there being more wasps than Japs, through to the opening killings in that most pulp fictional of settings, the restaurant itself.
It is perhaps not possible to write anything of sense of such a senseless event, a passage of horror that can perhaps never be explained. And yet some sense has to be made of it, or we cannot begin to try and stop such a thing ever happening again. The massacre is only meaningless if we capitulate to its madness as inevitable, as part of the human condition that we must now tolerate.
We need to rediscover that as people we need others not to kill, but to love. And for that we need to rediscover that we are communities. It is possibly a sign of the times that I feel foolish writing such a thing, but it is all I have to offer against what has taken place. My children sleep well, but now I wonder for how long. There are no more once upon times, only nows, and I will have to explain something of this to them. But though I have tried, I cannot answer the insistent question that haunts me and everyone else I know this night as searchers discover yet more and more bodies: How have we come to this?
Premier Paul Lennon was almost universally condemned last week following his call for the 1996 Port Arthur massacre and killer Martin Bryant never to be mentioned again in the Tasmanian Parliament. It was, in the words of trauma psychologist Paul Stevenson, a “dissociative approach”, like putting the incident on a psychological shelf and then telling everyone to get on with life*. A denial of reality similar to asserting that the massacre saw the end of Tasmania’s innocence. Writer Richard Flanagan wrote eloquently on this subject in an article published in The Age … as the drama of that terrible day unfolded, on April 28, 1996. Tasmanian Times reprints it here: