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Edward Munch, The Scream

Fear and Denial in Public Policy

by Dr Carmen Lawrence

It's clear that fear always serves the real elites - as opposed to those concocted by the conservative commentators; the privileged who throughout history have claimed to be uniquely positioned to identify the "dangers" from which they must protect us - witches, Jews, blacks, Muslims, communists, terrorists, illegals. Fear sells and it gets people elected.

Fear also sows mistrust in the community and reduces people's desire and ability to come together for constructive social change.

How can we work together if we do not trust one another? If we come to trust the experts and mistrust our own judgments, we are less likely to see the point of being involved in political life.

This page is a transcript of an address by Dr Carmen Lawrence, Federal Member for Fremantle, to the Australian Psychological Society (APS) Sydney Branch on 19 June 2003.


1 January 2007: The Gifts of Carmen Lawrence - The number of contributions from Carmen to the national debate, also but not only about Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, has kept growing, also on our website - this was the reason we constructed this page to bring all pages, all gifts from Dr Carmen Lawrence together.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Relaxed and Comfortable? | - I will attempt to chart the consequences of the exploitation of fear on the Australian body politic. As the title suggests, I will place this in the context of asking whether the objective Howard set himself as he approached government in 1996 has been realised.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of Annihilation | - Just last week the Prime Minister and Premiers gathered to devise even more draconian laws following the London bombings, ostensibly to protect us from such threats, while insisting that the threat level has actually not increased since that time.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of Crime | - The last twenty years have seen a sustained campaign on law and order, with the result that people now have wildly exaggerated, and fearful perceptions of the risks of assault, murder, child abuse and robbery.

8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of the Other | - One of the reasons offered for adopting democracy as a system of government is people's desire to be protected from state-sponsored fear - fear of persecution and death, arbitrary theft of property and discrimination.


Perhaps because of my early training in psychology and my exposure as a young adult to the graphic depiction of the Vietnam carnage, I developed a strong desire to understand how human beings arrive at the point where they can torture and kill one another.

I have read fairly extensively - perhaps to the point of obsession - about torture and mass murder as instruments of political regimes, particularly in Nazi Germany.

Like those who lived through the horror of the Holocaust and its aftermath, I have asked how ordinary people could have become "Hitler's willing executioners" [2], how doctors could have employed their skills to experiment on and kill disabled people, communists, homosexuals, gypsies and the Jewish people [3].

How was it that so many could stand by as their Jewish neighbours were first branded and excluded from normal life, then herded into ghettoes and cattle trucks and say that they did not know what was happening?

How could so many otherwise unexceptional men become expert in torture and murder for tyrants like Stalin, Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot. How could they so completely deny their victims' humanity, slaughtering them with no more thought than they would give to swatting a fly?

The easy answers are that they were terrorised into complicity, or that they were somehow deranged or, even less satisfactorily, that they were simply evil. These glib assessments allow us to escape the uncomfortable conclusion - which I think is closer to the mark - that under certain conditions we may all be capable of brutality or, at least, indifference to it.

Oppressive regimes could not operate without the "willing executioners", without technocrats to keep the wheels of the system turning or without the majority of the populace being willing to turn a blind eye to the disappearances and the brutality taking place around them.

The uncomfortable suspicion that any of us could be persuaded to deal with our fellow human beings as non-human is difficult and many would want to exempt themselves from such a damning conclusion.

Yet we know, that in the recent past, cultivated men and women were comfortable with owning, buying and selling other human beings. In our own history, Indigenous Australians were treated as less than human, murdered, mistreated and taken from their families.

We know that, in living memory, many Germans voted for a man who made it clear that he regarded the Jews as a "problem" requiring a "solution".

In Rwanda the bloodbath that erupted involved so much of the population that the idea of individual psychopathology simply will not do as an explanation.

In Bosnia neighbours who had lived peaceably together slaughtered one another without apparent regret.

In all of these situations, and others like them, one of the factors contributing to the oppression and bloodletting is the continued depiction of the targets of brutality as non-human, as dangerous, as unworthy of being treated with respect and decency.

Very often, this characterisation is the result of a very deliberate and carefully constructed propaganda campaign by political figures exploiting -indeed cultivating- primitive fears and encouraging us to deny the reality of our senses when we inflict damage as a result of our actions.

At other times, it reflects the longer, slower process of the formation of prejudice. The most lethally effective of these campaigns feeds on ancient group prejudices. The dark fears of citizens are easily exploited by the unscrupulous.

There are many less spectacular, more mundane, examples of our all too human tendency to diminish the humanity of others - read the letters pages of most newspapers and sample popular talk back radio for a few examples.

Hateful attitudes toward Indigenous people and Muslims abound, often with the predictable disclaimer - I'm not a racist, but...."

Asylum seekers as "the other"

The last election in Australia was dominated by the dehumanisation of asylum seekers, by fear and xenophobia - the fear of strangers - and a rejection of "the other".

We appeared to be operating in a moral vacuum which reached its zenith when our political leaders and the majority of the community were as one in refusing to allow the Tampa asylum seekers to reach our shores and turning our backs when 352 people died in the now notorious SIEVX.

This suggests that our moral compass is awry. Put simply, as Robert Coles does when discussing moral intelligence, "a moral person has room in his or her heart for others." [4]

Recent events showed there is not much room in our hearts and our policy on refugees does not have a strong moral basis. We live, increasingly, in a world in which we - and our children - are told that we should find ourselves first, take care of ourselves first; a value system which lauds individual action at the expense of co-operation, which denigrates the compassionate as "do-gooders", "bleeding hearts" or, more recently as "elites" out of touch with the so-called "aspirational" class.

The community's response to events like the arrival of asylum seekers shows that there is still a lot of prejudice amongst Australians, although it is, most of the time, underground. It is usually expressed in indirect and subtle ways; it is encrypted.

Such prejudice is, however, easily mobilised for political purposes; it is very agile and can easily find hooks on which to hang itself, no matter what the landscape. "Race" is one such hook; religion is another.

Much of the debate in Australia about the "asylum seekers" especially from those promoting exclusionary policies has been designed to provoke a racially based, xenophobic response.

Much of the argument to exclude refugees takes the form of a denial of moral responsibility; it ranges from indifference to focusing on formal equality, often ignoring the facts (for example, insisting that people should join an orderly queue to apply for passage to Australia when their circumstances preclude such action).

I agree with Paul Keating that we have moved from being on the brink of creating a tolerant, creative society in which xenophobia was on the wane to one in which "tolerance looks frailer and xenophobia more robust." [5]

As he also said in the third Manning Clark lecture in 2002, "this government [the Coalition] has consistently looked inward and backward" and its predominant theme is captured by its actions in closing borders and keeping people out. The emphasis is on exclusion rather than inclusion, on fear rather than hope.

In deliberately portraying asylum seekers as a threat, the Howard government has succeeded in gaining traction for the bizarre notion that desperate people in leaky boats were somehow a threat to our national security.

He counted on being able to arouse our fear of being overwhelmed by strangers envious of our good fortune, to speak to our old dark fear of invasion. Perhaps our own deep knowledge that we are alien invaders who have stolen the land we occupy allows him to feed this anxiety.

As Anthony Burke pointed out in "In Fear of Security" [6], Australian political figures have often portrayed Australia as vulnerable to loss of sovereignty and have generated levels of fear and anxiety that are disproportionate to the actual threats.

It is no accident that Ruddock chose to represent the arrival of an increased number of asylum seekers during last year as an "urgent threat to Australia's very integrity" and invoked the phrase "national emergency" to describe the increase in numbers.

The Government began with the assumption - no doubt carefully tested in publicly funded opinion polling - that to simply mention "illegal migrants" to some Australians would cause them to lose their grip on reality.

As Burke sees it, a community which sees itself in terms which emphasise threat and vulnerability, "is always an exclusive one, bounded by a power which seeks to enforce sameness, repress diversity, and diminish the rights (and claims to being) of those who live outside its protective embrace."

Burke posits the question which I regard as the crucial battleground for the hearts and minds of the Australian people: "Whether an 'Australian' community would be thought of on the basis of a walled and insecure identity, or a generous and outward looking diversity?"

Successive Governments have often justified their actions by the "awful moral calculus", as Burke puts it, of defining our security in such a way that it justifies the massive insecurity and obliteration of others.

In all of his pronouncements about the need for Australians to attack Iraq, Howard returned again and again to the threats to our security, even invoking the Bali bombings, despite the absence of any convincing evidence that we were threatened by Iraq.

Ours is a time in which the politics of fear is in full flight, although it may be argued that exploitation of fear is the politicians' normal "stock in trade".

But it seems that now, more than ever before, we are invited to feel insecure - worried about becoming victims of crime or disease, afraid of terrorist attacks and invasion by hoards of greedy strangers.

Those who raise these fears hope that, by concocting and exaggerating threats to our survival, by pushing the panic button, they can control us. The imminent "threat" from so-called "weapons of mass destruction" appears to have been exaggerated and spun to convince the community that their very lives were in jeopardy.

A recent poll [7] found that a third of the American public believes U.S. forces have already found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A further twenty-two percent said Iraq had actually used chemical or biological weapons. But, as you know, such weapons have not been found in Iraq and were not used.

Still, it's not surprising. Before the war, half of those polled in the U.S. said Iraqis were among the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 although most of the Sept. 11 terrorists were Saudis and none was an Iraqi.

Maybe this is because Americans - and I suspect Australians - don't distinguish one Arab (or Muslim) from another.

One commentator speculated that, "Given the intensive news coverage and high levels of public attention, this level of misinformation suggests some Americans may be avoiding having an experience of cognitive dissonance." (That is, of having their beliefs conflict with the facts).

This speculation is given some credence by the fact that the mistaken belief that weapons had been found was substantially greater among those who favoured the war.

Pollsters and political analysts offered several reasons for the gaps between facts and beliefs: the public's short attention span on foreign news, fragmentary or conflicting media reports that lacked depth or scepticism, and the Bush administration's efforts to sell a war by oversimplifying the threat and appealing to fear.

Bush described the pre-emptive attack on Iraq as "one victory in the war on terror that began Sept. 11.

Tapping into the feelings and fears after Sept. 11 is one way to sell a policy, even if it is a deeply cynical and manipulative strategy.

In Australia, such appeals to fear are used simultaneously to justify restrictions on our civil liberties and the detention of persecuted asylum seekers. It reached its hilarious zenith in the "fridge magnets" mail out.

We're encouraged to believe "it's them or us." Such fear is functional. It is needed to justify such policies and distract from policy failures.

And it's clear that fear always serves the real elites - as opposed to those concocted by the conservative commentators; the privileged who throughout history have claimed to be uniquely positioned to identify the "dangers" from which they must protect us - witches, Jews, blacks, Muslims, communists, terrorists, illegals. Fear sells and it gets people elected.

Fear also sows mistrust in the community and reduces people's desire and ability to come together for constructive social change.

How can we work together if we do not trust one another? If we come to trust the experts and mistrust our own judgments, we are less likely to see the point of being involved in political life.

Those in a high state of impotent anxiety are likely to feel overwhelmed and withdraw into their private worlds. As many authoritarian leaders have well understood, a populace is best controlled when it's afraid - controlled and diverted.

Denial and Indifference

In this, as in our response to the illegal attack on Iraq, many of us seem to entertain the vain hope that ignorance will confer innocence. Many of us are in denial - again.

We appear to believe that if we don't see the suffering, the deaths, they can't be real. It seems almost as if, in some larger sense, we don't see asylum seekers as human beings, don't see them as precious lives to be valued as we value our own.

We are good at denial and our Prime Minister understands that. He never tells us things we do not want to know. He knows that we would prefer to be "relaxed and comfortable", untroubled by gloomy thoughts and speculations.

He often tells us the comforting story that we are a generous people, especially when we are at our meanest. Whatever happens, we are not guilty.

That "unseeing", that denial runs deep in Australia. It is, after all, at the root of our relationship to Indigenous Australians, reflected in our treatment of the refugees who've turned up on our shores asking for our succour.

Our ancestors deliberately chose to "unsee" that there was another people standing in the way, doing their best not to be consigned to oblivion. The artifice of Terra Nullius still survives in the hearts and minds of many Australians.

Like others faced with violence and brutality we are also capable of indifference. In a speech in 1999, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, spoke eloquently of the "The perils of indifference." [8]

He surveyed the legacy of the 2Oth century, labelling it a "violent century", a century which encompassed two World Wars, countless civil wars, a senseless chain of assassinations, civilian bloodbaths in many armed conflicts, the inhumanity in the gulags, the tragedy of Hiroshima, and the vile stain of the Holocaust.

"So much violence", said Wiesel and perhaps, more surprisingly, "so much indifference."

Indifference, as Wiesel describes it, is "a strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil."

He goes on, "Of course, indifference can be tempting-more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes.

It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair." I suspect this is the state of mind of many Australians who manage to remain untroubled by our nation's treatment of asylum seekers.

How much easier to retreat into indifference, to render those who suffer as of no consequence, reducing them to an abstraction?

Indifference thrives when people are encouraged, as they have been with recent asylum seekers, to emphasise the difference between themselves and those they are ignoring or mistreating. We can be seduced into believing that we have no obligation to people who do not share our culture and race or who do not belong to our political sphere of influence.

Differences felt between them and us can be magnified to a point where these people become so alien that they tend not to be seen as fully human.

They stop existing as human beings with whom we share a great deal of common ground. As a consequence our capacity to empathise with their suffering and take in the nature of the hurt inflicted on them becomes partially obliterated.

It is only when people are directly confronted with clear evidence that others are more like us than not, when we see their faces and know their names and stories, that this barrier is breached.

The Government clearly understands that keeping a safe distance and reducing the opportunities to "humanise" asylum seekers is necessary to ensure the continuing acceptance by the Australian people of the more brutal elements of the asylum seeker policy.

They are housed in remote camps in Australia and thousands of kilometres from the mainland on Christmas Island and on Nauru, where visas are refused to journalists and human rights activists.

The Government's refusal to allow any photographs or personal contact with those who were stranded on the Tampa was part of a deliberate campaign to prevent any identification with the people on board.

The Defence Minister's press secretary gave explicit instructions to the Defence Department that there were to be no "personalising or humanising images" taken of the asylum seekers. [9]

The capacity to ignore the suffering of others and to be apparently indifferent may be stem from what is described in the research literature as "modern racism" [10] - a surface belief in racial equality that masks latent prejudicial feelings.

At a conscious level, people may endorse principles of fairness and equality, but simultaneously experience negative feelings toward other racial and ethnic groups, like the Iraqis and Afghanis who have arrived on our shores.

Research has shown that this is more likely to be expressed by a reluctance to engage in interaction and a failure to help people from such groups rather than in actions that directly inflict harm.

Research in the U.S. has shown that nearly half of all whites demonstrate this propensity. There is no good reason to believe that Australians would be markedly different.

Indifference may also feed on what some researchers label the 'Just world hypothesis" [11], the belief that people "get what they deserve and deserve what they get", that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and the victims of misfortune deserve their suffering.

They subscribe to the view that individuals can control their fates, an illusion which allows people to see their world as orderly and predictable.

People who strongly hold such beliefs are more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups and those experiencing injustice. They see no need to help asylum seekers because they believe they have somehow "earned" their fate.

When people who firmly believe in a "just world" witness the suffering of others, they may first attempt to help but, if that is not possible, they will switch to blaming the victim because of their "bad" acts or their "bad" characters, a reaction which quickly developed in response to destructive acts by detained asylum seekers.

Whatever its parents or its progeny, indifference, as Wiesel reminds is the most poisonous of human reactions when action is needed.

When we allow ourselves to be aware of it, we solve the dissonance between the persecution being carried out in our name and our view of ourselves as a generous, decent people who do not wilfully injure others by not seeing, by finding excuses, seeking refuge in "the mindlessness of the group mind" and by bowing to authority.

The reality of asylum seeker policy

Official Government policy on asylum seekers, a form of institutionalised sadism, has at its core the systematic degradation and torture of our fellow human beings, treatment we would normally abhor. The ill treatment of refugees and those on Temporary Protection Visas is confirmed in various reports.

We cannot pretend that we do not know what is happening. Others are certainly aware of the way we treat those seeking asylum.

Despite the cold reassurances of the Government, we know that such detention has profound effects on the physical and psychological well-being of detainees. The Government encourages us to turn our faces away from the refugees. We should, instead, confront the dubious morality of the policy and invite Australians to exercise their empathic imagination.

It is imperative that we ask ourselves how we would feel in similar circumstances, if our freedom were taken away.

To imagine how we would feel if our children were denied an education; how distressed we would be if we couldn't call on our own doctor when we were ill; how humiliated we would be if we were forced to be strip-searched at regular intervals; how desperate we would feel if we knew we might never be allowed to bring our families to join us; how hurtful it would be to be treated as liars and cheats.

Many asylum seekers are here precisely because they are the victims of torture and persecution, fleeing human rights abuses, often leaving family and loved ones behind. Others have lost family members to brutal regimes and are still grieving for their losses. Some of them come from war zones where they have seen their communities bombed into oblivion.

Yet their coming here is an expression of hope; they want to rebuild their lives and give their children a better future. On arrival in Australia they are hopeful of compassionate and humane treatment.

Instead, they are rebuffed, humiliated and tormented still further.

This indeterminate detention leads to mounting stress, not least because of the disappointment of their optimistic expectations. The result is frequently severe depression and thoughts of despair and helplessness.

Some detainees demonstrate aggressive, destructive and self-harming behaviours reflected in suicide and acts of mass violence, group breakouts, rioting, the burning of facilities and hunger strikes.

These actions feed the hostile attitudes already prevalent in the wider community. The Government insists that such behaviour of people "in extremis" is a form of bullying and manipulation; that detainees are crudely trying to "exploit our decency."

This, in my view, is an obscene reversal of the facts. Just who's being bullied here? It is surprising, given the grim situation of so many detainees, that there is not more of such behaviour.

We should ask our Government and our fellow citizens to ask themselves a few simple questions.

Contemplate for a moment the care you lavish on your own children, your thoughtfulness in protecting them from exposure to violence and suffering; your careful planning of their education, their access to opportunities to learn, to explore the world from a secure, loving base. How can your children safely explore a world from behind barbed wire? There's certainly a world to be explored, but one that will destroy them.

We should think about the importance we place on protecting our children and ensuring their physical safety. How can parents in detention camps, with no private place and no control over their daily lives provide such a safe environment?

We don't need elaborate research to conclude that asylum seekers are going to be damaged by these experiences. It's obvious to anyone prepared to imagine their own responses, to think about what would happen to their families if they were put under the sort of stress experienced daily in the detention centres.

One man who has been detained for over four years describes it as "dying every day."

The mere fact of indefinite detention is bad enough, but degrading treatment is also regularly meted out. There are numerous reports of naked hostility being expressed by the staff toward the detainees.

In letters to supporters, people in detention report that they are often treated with disrespect and endure petty humiliations and intrusions into their privacy and that isolation detention and force are routinely used. People are identified by numbers, not names.

Following the fires that were lit in several of the centres around Christmas 2002, strip-searching -including full body cavity searching - became routine and many were placed in isolation and denied any communication with the people outside who attempt to support them.

Those who do not meet the strict criteria for refugee status face the constant threat of deportation, often to places where they believe they will be further persecuted and even killed. Once they leave Australia's shores, there is no attempt by the Australian Government to determine their fate.

Those whose refugee status is confirmed and who are released on Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) fare only marginally better. They are forced to live in a permanent state of suspended animation because, under the current government, such visas may never become permanent.

The Government reserves the right to reassess their claims in the light of changes in the conditions in their countries of origin. For example, Afghanis fleeing persecution under the Taliban and eventually granted refugee status are now being sent back because it is judged that they need no longer fear persecution in Afghanistan. The same fate confronts the Iraqi people who fled Saddam Hussein and the East Timorese who have lived here for a decade.

Those on TPV's are forced to live in limbo, denied hope and the opportunity to begin new lives. They are also denied basic resettlement services and prevented from bringing their families to join them, if they have been separated.

The denial of family reunion is the reason why there were so many women and children among the 352 asylum seekers who drowned when the boat, which became known at the SIEVX, [12] sank or was deliberately scuttled in late 2001.

It is why two women drowned when the another sank after catching fire and why there were so many women and children on the vessel which broke apart and provided the photos which the Government used as "evidence" that the asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard, [13] a claim subsequently shown to be a complete fabrication.


One of the tragedies in contemporary Australian politics is that this degrading policy is supported, in broad terms, by the national parliamentary representatives of both the major political parties.

This bipartisan stance is justified, even by many who are uncomfortable with it, because it seems that the majority of Australians strongly support the key elements of the policy - refusing "entry" of unauthorised arrival by boat (while turning a blind eye to the many more who overstay their visas) and detaining those who do make it for indefinite periods in conditions that are clearly worse than those we impose on convicted criminals.

Our leaders assume we are incapable of doing better and are not prepared to argue for a more reasoned and humane position. Most people have simply not heard contrary arguments put cogently by the political figures who have most ready access to the popular media.

Far from welcoming "those who come across the sea" and sharing in our good fortune, as our national anthem boasts, we are, as a nation, rejecting the most traumatised of people and adding to their suffering.

They have not come to embarrass us, but to beg our compassion and help, believing us to be a nation that values human beings equally regardless of race, creed or colour. We have yet to justify their faith in us or to earn the description as fair and humane people.

Our willing ignorance, our denial, our susceptibility to propaganda, our failure to properly assess or comprehend what is being done allows the Prime Minister and his champions to keep trotting out the same old misinformation about asylum seekers and the "threat" they represent to our way of life.

And we hold close the dark secret that we could not feel as we do if the people being locked up were more like us; that our distance - and Howard's - would be impossible if these were white, Christian, English-speaking westerners.


[1] Arendt, Hanna. (1967). The Origins of Totalitarianism. London: George Allen & Unwin, p xxxi.

[2] Goldhagen, Daniel. (1996) Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Gennans and the Holocaust, New York: Knopf.

[3] Lifton, Robert, Jay. (2000) Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology ofGenocide. New York: Basic Books.

[4] Coles, Robert. (1997) The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to Raise a Moral Child, New York: Random House.

[5] Keating, Paul. A time for reflection: Political values in the age of distraction. The Third Manning C/ark Lecture, March 2002.

[6] Burke, Anthony. (2001 ). In Fear of Security: Australia 's Invasion Anxiety, Sydney: Pluto Press.

[7] Frank Davies. "War Poll Uncovers Fact Gap", Philadelphia Inquirer, June 14,2003

[8] Wiesel, Elie. (1999). The Perils of Indifference, Millennium Lecture Series.

[9] Evidence to Senate Select Committee investigating a "Certain Maritime Incident", April 17, 2002, p 1151-1152.

[10] Entman, R.M.(1992). "Blacks in the News: Television, Modern Racism, and Cultural Change." Journalism Quarterly, 69: 341.

[11] Lipkus, I. M., Dalbert, C., & Siegler, I. C. (1996). The importance of distinguishing the belief in ajust world for self versus for others: Implications for psychological well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(7), 666-677.

[12] Kevin, Tony (2003) SIEVX: Joining the dots: Perth Writers Festival.

[13] Marr & Wilkinson, op cit, p 257.