Essay

In Pleasantville

Sitting on the step

THE ACCENT GAVE her away. I asked: "How long have you been here?" Twenty years, she said, an English-Australian who always feels divided. "My children grew up here and they don't want to go back. They've been over there, they hated London."

"That's OK for them. What do you want now for yourself?"

Standard feminist question. The Saturday party was some hours old, in a big house not too far from town, but still a place with backyard and big verandas, vegetable garden, pumpkin vine running wild, and the park, more like a paddock, stretching away beyond the back fence. We watched small kids rioting round, yelling and chasing, safe enough with dog and tricycles.

Back in the kitchen, through the previous hour, there'd been a lot of talk and some wry laughter about a certain quixotic young person's attempt to organise a freedom ride to an outback detention centre. The authorities had given her very short shrift. It was never going to happen; and, of course, she'd planned to shoot video film inside the razor wire.

The house belongs to an Irish friend who describes himself as ex-Christian and ex-anarchist; some say he's still both, incurably. He gives indefinite houseroom to anyone he finds who needs it. There was a quiet Afghani poet there that day, one who knew very well what things were like inside the wire; he didn't talk much, but offered copies of his poems. There were a few other former inmates who, technically, should have been somewhere else. And there was the young American nomad who, seeking a place where sometimes people got it right, was about to move on to New Zealand. Having found that Australia was after all part of the ordinary evil world, he gave us the benefit of his disillusion, loudly and at length.

He looked a bit aggressively at middle-aged, seemingly respectable people like us as though we'd need challenging, need telling. Not quite in so many words, he wanted us to know that Guantanamo Bay and the Australian gulags were closer than we thought; here, just outside the window. The Cornelia Rau case was around that week, out loud in the headlines. Someone said: "Good thing. It's all going to blow, big time."

The American said: "But like, it won't blow, that's the trouble. Like everyone here just goes surfing and does their barbecue. You talked about the politicians being deadheads, but what about the people? They're all asleep, like dead to the world. Like, y'ever see that movie called Pleasantville, where the folks didn't know there was the world out there?"

I remembered seeing it in 1999 with a friend who, as it happened, was about to leave Australia for a job in California. We'd enjoyed the film's balancing acts; small towns and small minds were at once spoofed, condemned and forgiven. In Pleasantville, life was ordered, life was invincibly nice, and nothing existed beyond the mild horizon: a picture of the supposedly "kinder, gentler times" of a 1950s soap. The young people of the 1990s, magically transported back through their TV set, performed a kind of ethical rescue on Pleasantville: they brought colour and sex and disturbance, dangerous notions from wider future worlds.

Benign, liberal satire from the Clinton years? Maybe, but for us, sitting in John Howard's Australia, the bite was sharp and satisfying. Four years later, with the war on and George W. Bush in the saddle, my friend wrote from San Diego: "You remember Pleasantville? I don't know if they'd get away with it now. For God's sake, that's what they're supposed to be defending. And did you know there's a real place named Pleasantville in New Jersey? It's the place they produce Reader's Digest."

Now the American boy's exasperation surged up: "Like, God, the things your government's been doing to people. How can you guys live here?"

It was an accusation, a small explosion, but by common consent we let it dissipate. Nobody in my Irish friend's house was going to say, "Well, how about your USA?" He was welcome, he could hang out around them as long as he wanted.

On the veranda, we heard floating talk about anti-war blogs and websites, useful digital esoterica, and a passing debate about vegetarian and vegan.

What did she want for herself? "Not a bad question," she said. "I meant to stay here. But ..."

There was a great weight hanging from the But. We watched the kids for a while, and I was going to say conciliatory things about the hope I felt in younger generations. Then she said: "This is not the Australia I came to. It's not the country I came for."

She had passed several childhood years in this country while her father had a job here; fifteen years later she came back, doing the great overland journey with a busload of young fellow adventurers. Later again, she came to stay.

I told her I'd heard other stories like that, stories of people coming early in their lives and then being drawn to return, sometimes repeatedly, sometimes to return for good.

"You know what it is?" she said. "It's the light. Over there, you look back at it. It makes you think this is a more open place, a better country. I kept looking back and seeing it."

She laughed, as though to fend off too much seriousness. "I'm not saying I thought it was Arcadia. But you know, 20 years ago ..."

I did know; 20 years ago was another country.

The talk changed then, as though we were moving around underwater. Hard to remember who said what; we were both old enough to remember being children in wartime, growing up knowing something – even if not enough, never enough – about the Holocaust; seeing film images of the camps. What she was saying to me and what we were saying together was that nobody now living could be outside the scope of that knowledge. Some remember, all inherit. The children wouldn't know, but its shadow fell over them. And, she said, since they and we all know, how can they and we let it even begin to happen again?

The American boy came and sat beside us, and began apologising for whatever he'd said in the kitchen. Before we could reassure him, there were sudden yells from the kids, and a long demanding wail. The three-year-old, immensely proud of her steering, had swerved, crashed the trike into a gate and skinned her knee. My companion, as it happened, was her grandmother. Somebody had to know where the band-aids were.

That's the thing about kids, they really take over.

Freedom on the march

SOMEWHERE UNDERLYING THAT conversation, there were the unabsorbed shocks from the year 1996. Until that March, when Howard came to power, we had believed, quite securely, that certain social democratic advances – gains made unevenly, with steps forward and back since the late 1960s – were so much matters of liberal consensus that they'd never be dislodged from our world. The place we lived in had become more truthful, more real and, therefore, more honourable. Travelling outside it, we had not been either ashamed or diffident to be Australian; our nationality had almost taken on a kind of dignity. Almost; and we felt the beginning of pride, after all those colonial generations. It wasn't something we'd talked out, or even thought of clearly; it was more what we'd come to assume, tentatively, the sense of the ground grown firmer underfoot.

Then, abruptly, the gains were denied, the ground lost. Through the early months of the new regime, jaws dropped further every week. We realised, slowly and late, that we were suffering a progressive double shock: that the clock could after all be turned back, and that this was made possible by a kind of brutal ignorance in high places. People said My god, they don't know what time it is, and Where the devil were they in the 1970s? The probable answer is that they were in very secure positions, somehow insulated not only from all the raging talk and music of popular politics, but also from their meanings. While some of the world was trying to catch up with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, trying to make it real, these men – they were nearly all men – were clad in privilege, running in smooth grooves on the way to power, neither seeing nor wishing to see.

Perhaps because of some insanely persistent optimism (is it just the fun of watching kids cavorting around in parks?) I can generally see a bar of light ahead, along a blurred boundary not too far in the distance. It's still there, but the great cloud above it began getting heavier and darker even before the war began. And, we said, at the kitchen table, in the coffee shop, in the street, on the veranda, it's not only about the war, though that's more than bad enough, it's about this country's shameful obedience, the burden of dishonour.

Watching George W. Bush inventing his axis of evil, we talked of déjà vu; this is awful, they can't go back there. We revisited some history: wasn't it 20 years ago Ronald Reagan was playing round with crude fictions about the evil empire? In 1983, the ex-actor pronounced a new phase in the Cold War, the end of détente; there was to be no more talk of peaceful co-existence, or even of the balance of terror, but escalating nuclear insanity. It was a cowboys-and-Indians version of global politics, and nobody much was buying it even then – so we said. We also said: maybe back then we were wrong, maybe the hawks were always circling, waiting.

Two years later, Gorbachev became everybody's pin-up boy; having come to power in the Soviet Union, he calculated fast that his country could not afford its side of the nuclear build-up. He made the cover of Time: Man of the Decade. By May 1988, Ronnie and Nancy were partying away with Mikhail and Raisa, and Reagan delivered his big speech on friendship and democracy at Moscow State University, with bonhomie all round. He had a really good speechwriter, we said.

Scenes from an old comedy? The cold war had hung over central stage, a heavy, unsteady set construction that finally collapsed. It gave the powers their necessary operating stories; can national societies not believe in themselves unless there are, somewhere, enemy forces lined up against them? Nine-eleven meant that the next enemy had announced itself, and they began the so-called war on terror. That term, like the language of evil empires and axes of evil, attempts to render the world as whole lot tidier than it is. Clunky, heavy-duty treatment, that one, says my scriptwriter friend: call in the script doctor.

Perhaps they did, but there was no improvement. In the windy, self-intoxicated speech after his second inauguration, the president seemed strangely unconcerned about terror, weapons of mass destruction or the Axis of Evil; Iraq itself wasn't mentioned, let alone suffering Afghanistan. Another story had taken over; the president's god-given missionary task was the spreading of freedom and democracy. (That precious word freedom has taken a terrible battering, we said.) Groping in memory for similar rhetoric and rhythms, I thought of those strident, grandiose commentaries from the newsreel archive The March of Time.

Not all commentators credited the flag-waving. Local papers reprinted comment from The New York Times'Bob Herbert; he was reminded of the closing scenes in The Godfather where images from a solemn baptism ritual are intercut with shots of horrific murder. Inauguration day, marked in Washington by a great round of costly festivities, was also one on which 26 people were killed in car and truck explosions in Baghdad – routine set pieces from a distant theatre. Herbert wrote that talk of freedom "on the march" belonged in the "fantasy-laden Bush realm far removed from the realities of war and suffering".

But that high-powered script team kept the fantasy going. In the State of the Union address two weeks later, the mantras of democracy and freedom rang on and on. They seemed to mean about the same thing, a benign America's gift to less powerful, less enlightened states: new-look Manifest Destiny. Bush took credit for political advances in all directions, the democratic turn in the Ukraine included, while Iran and Syria were numbered as guilty of harbouring "state-sponsored terror", and Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as allies, were cajoled to reform.

My scriptwriter friend said she could feel the writing team wrestling hard; the imperial elements had to be worked into the President's plans for his country, in which the social security system must be dismantled for the sake of a "society of ownership". It had to look as though political democracy was on offer, but social democracy was nowhere on the scene.

Then we saw, incredulously, that passage of overladen theatre when Bush acknowledged certain of those present – Safia Taleb al-Suhail, whose father had been murdered by Saddam's security police; and the parents of a young American who had been killed in Falluja. At the President's words, Safia turned from her position beside Laura Bush to hug the dead soldier's mother. "If anything is remembered from the speech," one journalist wrote, "it will be that moment." There was a shot of the President looking tearful.

Whether those women wanted it that way or not, this was a hyper-manipulated, global television moment. They were used. What their embrace meant, in that ruthlessly triumphalist context, was, unambiguously, a further vindication of the war: see how this bereaved mother and this fatherless daughter rise above their grief. Their gesture is transcendent; the whole cause is stamped as noble, and the Iraqi election is reconfirmed as a win for the Bush regime.

Sometimes we'd pull back and notice how we, and others around us, were watching more obsessively than we used to. Someone said getting older meant getting freer; older women thought more about the world. Someone else said that that was a wobbly bit of theory, it's not about age, it's about the net and faster news and the world pressing in more and more heavily – these speeches took up loud headlines, editorials, radio talk-time. We all said, we're under threat, how can we not attend to what they're doing to us? And we asked what can it mean now to be an ally, a loyal and uncritical ally, of this president's America?

Supporters of the war were crowing aloud, saluting Bush, Blair and Howard "for having the courage to do what was right in the face of the carping, self-centred minorities whose only motivation was their blind hatred of the aforementioned leaders..." That was from one newspaper letter in Sydney. Other, quieter voices raised the fundamental question about means and ends. You can dodge that question only if you refuse to think about the carnage.

IN SPITE OF ALL THE RIGHT-WING CARICATURES OF THE ANT-WAR MOVEMENT, nobody wanted Saddam kept in his odious place; no one disputed that tyrants should be toppled, cruel regimes overthrown and societies opened to political choice. Like thousands everywhere, we talked on about how the weapons inspectors should have been allowed to finish their task in 2002.

Then we'd stop and say, "But we're going round in circles; everyone knows this – don't they?" In fact no. For those who were children in wartime, or later in the Cold War decades, crude propaganda is such an old story that it's hard to believe they're trying it on again. It's even harder to believe that it works. We began noticing the great irony: that while Osama bin Laden was evidently alive, well and free, and Saddam Hussein alive and well though captive, tens of thousands of innocent people had died since March 2003.

But for those deaths there were no headlines; no one knew how many. Their cities were razed, and there were small shards of information: ancient material treasures had been looted and destroyed by thugs – of the West or the Middle East, what difference? When I exclaimed in horror, someone said never mind old vases, think about the kids in all that rubble. I said I'd never set Babylonian treasures in the scales against the life of a child, but I'd insist that in different registers, both should have absolute protection.

At one collective supper, there was an upsurge of real bitterness. As the weather cooled, the oldest of us gathered others round for her legendary soup. She, once a member of the Party, a veteran of half a century's battles, was usually of great good humour, and the evening began cheerfully; but then something triggered her slide into anger with everything at large.

"If feminism had its act even halfway together," she broke out, "they'd have made the world's militaries go into Afghanistan years ago and turf out the Taliban. But the West was supporting those barbarians, they didn't care that they were keeping half the population in medieval slavery, they just didn't care, and Western women didn't care either. You know what I'm saying? We've failed, the lot of us. Everything we've been on about for 40 years, we've got just nowhere."

She rattled cooking gear, banged things on to the table, railing that if international feminism couldn't have stopped all that misery, what the hell were we all in business for? We asked, could anyone imagine feminist battalions overruling people like Rumsfeld? "If not, why not?" she yelled back, "Why not, after all these years, remember Lysistrata, why can't we imagine it?"

Her rage deflated, slowly (for god's sake somebody open that bottle) and things settled a bit. No bad medicine. Over long years, she'd earned her right to fury.

Then the sea rose in the Indian Ocean, and crashed over everything else.

The waves

AT DINNER, THE restaurant tables were too close together; the people just behind my back were involved in a clattering birthday party, one in which notes of discord were often audible. Against the noise, our conversations were fractured, struggling. This dinner had been organised so that a few less important persons could reunite with a more important one, a busy academic who had returned to the colonies from a time in Washington. He spoke of the incoming US Secretary of State as Condi. We thought he'd gone some way rightwards since he left Sydney five years earlier, and indeed he seemed to support the Iraq adventure. He said 9/11 had made all the difference, too easy for Australians to under-estimate it.

But despite his trumpeting (the many journals he was editing, the major research projects with several institutions), the tsunami intruded persistently on our dinner, flowing into the crevices. The talk kept returning to it and on this, too, our friend had things to say. He remembered a holiday in the Andamans, and commented unkindly on the allegedly ramshackle infrastructure of certain south Asian states.

I was far enough down the table for an exchange with an unassuming neighbour, who had said how the scale of disaster (at that date, the death toll was 200,000 and counting, with five million homeless) left him with nothing to say at all. A friend opposite suggested that silence was the only proper response. Then she, a literary lady, asked did we remember how Patrick White kept saying: "The earth is angry"?

In fact I did; and I'd have liked to reminisce at that point, because there was a story or two worth telling from the day when he'd said it, a huge Palm Sunday peace rally more than 20 years ago. But the talk from the next table cut in insistently; the tsunami was churning round with them as well. It was about donations.

"I always make it the Red Cross, because you know they're going to be there when nobody else is, don't you?" "I don't know about that. I stay with World Vision because I always think well, they're Christian people ..."

Their exchange took on a hysterical edge; my friends raised eyebrows and grinned, listening and pretending not to. A younger male voice was raised aggressively; he was telling them to think about AIDS in Africa – "There's mega-maxi tsunami, only it's not making the headlines – 25 million ..." Determinedly, we tried to get back into our own business, only we'd lost the thread on Patrick White.

The others were talking about Susan Sontag, and I listened, because I'd thought the event of her death, like so much else, had been almost swamped in the floods. Our eminent friend then told everyone how looking from Australia, you wouldn't realise how precious all those New York intellectuals really were; those lefty lesbians, they weren't really America ...

He was baiting us and everyone knew it, but my literary friend opposite had had enough. She called clearly down the table: "You're right out of line there, Prof!" silencing him and the rest for a few heavy seconds. In that pause, a high anxious voice came in from the next table: "What I'm saying is, you've got to look for God in the epidemic, and in the tsunami, because he's there, God is in the tsunami." And then theexasperated young man, trying to wind it up: "Oh, Christ. If you say so, mother, if you say so."

As we moved out, our eminent guest told us that if only we got decent media in Australia, we'd know about the real mayhem in Iraq, and we'd know that the coalition of the willing had to hang in there, not cut and run, get the barbarians into line. He was drunk by now, prepared to be quite gross, and still more intent on irritating the left. Someone reminded him that most of our newspapers were owned by an American, and they squabbled. The last thing I heard him saying was: "You watch our Condi, she'll get those A-rabs into line."

Five of us shared a taxi, and the ride was taken up with discussion of the way people get desperate for coherence: scrambling round, looking for God in the tsunami. Liberal Christians, said a friend, who'd been one, would think that's a bit primitive, but they'd say if you can't believe in the deity's omnipotence, you can still believe he is present in human suffering. But then there are all the Muslims who insist that Allah knows best; when the tsunami comes, they say Allah is displeased, and they'd be saying that now all over Aceh. There are still Christians struggling hard to believe in an all-powerful über-patriarch, even when he appears to have engaged in mass murder. For them, making sense of cosmic disaster demands strenuous theological wrestling, and they'll keep at it.

In different voices, we heard ourselves saying Anyhow, it changes everything. We hoped that might be true, that the tsunami might have made a way for the world to move on from 9/11.

AT HOME, I FOUND THE BOOK OF PATRICK WHITE'S SPEECHES ON THE SHELF. On that long-ago Palm Sunday, he'd led the march through the city, then the crowd, about 40,000, gathered with balloons, banners and placards in the Domain. It was one of the great carnivals of protest that belonged to those years, when the giant cloud hung over all of us; when Reagan's darkest fantasies had appeared to win credence and Star Wars loomed. On that day and later, Patrick White said that nuclear war was "the most serious issue the global family [had] ever had to face", and that human anger was building against it "as the earth, too, is angry. For it seems to me that the earth's erupting volcanoes and repeated earthquakes are more than coincidental in these days of nuclear tests ..."

By then, he was often derided by the complacent, conservative pundits, "accused" as he said himself, "of being an angry, bitter old man". Angry certainly, perhaps bitter, but he was no greenie mystic. The nexus he drew between natural disasters and the political world was not superstitious but perfectly material. He thought the trauma of submarine nuclear explosions could have been enough to trigger other lethal shudders in the planet.

Now, in the long stalemate on nuclear testing, other kinds of war games hold the stage; but the writer's desperate, poetic final messages hold good. The natural catastrophe connects with politics unavoidably; the huge waves crash straight into human institutions. They didn't swamp the divisions between Tamil and Sinhalese, nor those between Aceh and Jakarta – although for the latter, the crisis might have helped the moves toward peace. For world leaders, the tsunami was stunningly provident, a bizarre gift. It could be seized on for the display of Western, and particularly American, virtue. With all the god-bothering, there was nobody to blame, and other natural accidents of that season wouldn't have done: the mudslide in California (only twelve dead), the South Australian bushfires (only nine dead), even the huge winter storms across northern Europe made only fleeting headlines. Confounded by the uncontrollable, the leaders grasped at control.

Journalists have no investment in control; chaos is their business. From them we learnt the terrible mathematics of death and disappearance, and the locations of towns and even cities we'd never heard of before: Nagappattinam, Muttivaillu, Valachchenai, Meulaboh and Khao Lok.

 

GEORGE W. BUSH came to his rostrum several days late, sleepwalking through the words; the scathing note that American aid to that point added up to less than the cost of his $40 million inauguration flashed on email circuits round the globe. Colin Powell, a dead man walking, prated on dutifully about displaying American virtue to the Muslim world, and John Howard, with dreary piety, talked up his country's goodness. They rushed to the Jakarta conference on January 5, and high-level global humanitarianism went on display – a dull spectacle at that, a stiff all-male group photograph with Kofi Annan at the centre.

Immediately, political meanings dominated humanitarian ones. Western complacency rolled in, huge waves of it. At the presidential inauguration, an American preacher proclaimed that this Christian nation was leading the world in aid giving. John Howard committed $1 billion, to be given directly to Indonesia, and specifically bypassing the co-ordinating role of the UN. Howard was photographed in a ritual embrace with the Indonesian president, and commentators seized on the subtext of rapprochement: now, finally, the awkward matter of Timor could be forgotten.

Meanwhile, the tides of death, mud and debris had filled every media channel and crevice. Cameras traversed the limitless havoc; the wreckage of towns and villages, vast areas of devastated housing – with, here and there, a mosque or palace still standing – stretching from one horizon to the next.

People kept on harking back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945; I turned to John Hersey's great essay on Hiroshima to find words that seemed to fit:

... naked trees and canted telegraph poles; the few standing, gutted buildings only accentuating the horizontality of everything else ... and in the streets a macabre traffic – hundreds of crumpled bicycles, shells of streetcars and automobiles, all halted in mid-motion.

And Hersey heard of mothers who in Hiroshima then, as in south Asia now , wandered despairingly, clutching tiny corpses and refusing to let go.

So real persons, whose images we caught for bare seconds, were lodged in the mind: the young blond man weeping, showing a photograph of his wife, who wouldn't be found alive. First-World tourists joined Third-World victims who were equally nameless; the frantic parents looking for their children, the people who stayed alive by hanging on to floating braches or debris; the young pregnant woman who couldn't swim - but she held on to her tree, lived on rainwater, fruit and seeds from branches, and saved both her own life and the child's. There was the weeping girl who will never forgive herself because she let go of her friend's hand, and the friend vanished in the violent waters. There was the face of a child of perhaps twelve, lying on her side on a hospital bed, her knees drawn up, her eyes staring straight ahead into hopeless nothingness; her parents and all her family had drowned. I don't know now whether she was filmed in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu or Aceh; from whichever place, she couldn't see anything but loss. Dressed a bit differently, she could have been in Afghanistan. Or Iraq.

Those images are fragments of a great jigsaw. Most of the pieces will remain missing; we'll never get even half the picture. To offer such fragments, tiny shards, is all the media can do in disaster zones. Journalists rarely delude themselves that they bring much of the truth, and journalistic information isn't the same as knowledge. A radio correspondent said that he stopped asking people for their stories; he couldn't bear his own inability to help; a photojournalist said he could bear to look, but only through the camera. An English journalist, Madeleine Bunting, questioned the value of what she saw as voyeuristic reportage. Since these things have happened, and this is the world I'm in, I'd rather risk voyeurism than go in ignorance – even as I know, from long engagement with them, that without words, without texts and contexts, images can be cryptic, ambiguous; they can lie, they can be dumb. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag wrote that whatever evidence we see of others' suffering, we can never really know what it's like. "We don't get it."

Her point is that empathy is impossible, and she's right. Television shows me the Sinhalese woman (but she could be Tamil) stumbling around in the chaos of a refugee camp, baby in arms, looking for fresh water. I can momentarily imagine the size of her plight; but from my chair in Sydney I cannot feel with her, and it wouldn't do her any good if I could. The fact of her need is visible; but it's when I know, from printed or spoken words, that her need must be multiplied by hundreds of thousands, that the scale becomes stunning, the call to respond imperative.

The images of desolation were swallowed in non-digestible statistics of death, contagion, homelessness, loss of livelihood. These gave place on the screen to the phone numbers and web addresses for Oxfam, the Red Cross, UNHCR, Médecins Sans Frontières. Private donations ran into millions, and Howard kept on about Australian good-heartedness. But this is a very rich country. My scriptwriter friend was at work, hoping against hope that a TV network might back a political series. She said local millionaires had given more because the general shame had finally got through to them: shame for the whole past decade of our lives, the desert gulags, the abandonment of the reconciliation project, the recurrent meanness and dreariness. Through the same weeks, the government was busy deporting more asylum seekers; others, who had survived their own unconscionable tsunamis, remained in prison.

Obsessively, gloomily, we watched the Labor opposition snarled up in its internal squabbles; they had nothing to say on those matters. Two weeks later, the tsunami no longer took up the opening pages; there was space in the middle of the paper headed Tsunami Aftermath. We saw images of intrepid rebuilding, vistas of crowded tent cities. There were issues of co-ordination of aid, and the standard assaults on the UN.

Some of us met for French practice, and language tangled with life. We noticed Médecins Sans Frontières announce an end to its appeal for the tsunami victims, after raising 4 million euros in France alone; there were also the victims of the Bam earthquake in Iran, and the beleaguered refugees in Darfur in Sudan. They asked donors to consider the full range of their programs, including the pandemics of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Other agencies attacked the decision, but on France 2 a journalist asks: "le Sri Lanka, doit-il occluder le Darfour?"

Clearly not; neither Darfur, nor Mali, nor Mauretania, nor Iraq. Colin Powell, tearfully farewelling the personnel of the State Department, looked something like a human being again.

"We don't get it"

MEANWHILE, CERTAIN IMAGES of Iraqi victims did appear, by accident, from the Abu Ghraib prison. Those, Sontag had written in The New York Times, would be the images most likely to be retained from America's war. She assaulted the authorities for trying to dodge the charge of torture, to blot out the word; she foretold that:

... the defining association of people everywhere with the war that the United States launched pre-emptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by Americans ...

and foretold also that, from mid-2004 on, the authorities would be making great efforts to ensure that other, similar photographs from Iraq wouldn't get around, since:

After all, we're at war. [But]... In our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren't going to go away. Yes, it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words.

There she turned back on her own tracks. In Regarding the Pain of Others, she had both affirmed and questioned the power of the photographic image, arguing with her own earlier essay "On Photography". Yes, memory is visual; yes, photography has brought the realities of war closer, ever since its first employment in the American Civil War; but no, photographs can't tell you what it's really like. "We don't get it. Can't tell, can't imagine."

The later essay, published in The New York Times seven months before her death, was headed "Regarding the Torture of Others". Here, whatever the acknowledged limits of photography, there was no evading the stark evidence. The pictures from Abu Ghraib were taken with the soldiers' own digital cameras; for the young men and women on duty in the jail, capturing the prisoners' humiliation was part of the fun – a major part, Sontag thought; it was all horseplay. They were brutally ignorant of their victims' culture, and seemingly quite uninstructed on issues of human rights.

The torture of prisoners is not an aberration. It is a direct consequence of the with-us-or-against-us doctrines of world struggle with which the Bush Administration has sought to change, change radically, the international stance of the United States and to recast many domestic institutions ...

In the same way, the Australian Government's active complicity is not an aberration. In the country of broken promises, it's simple: there's the tight circle of people who matter, and then there are the vast, faceless populations who don't.

The heat in the kitchen

ONE OF MY friends got up to mischief. Having done her duty, making a modest donation to the tsunami appeal through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, she asked the person on the phone desk how she could donate to a fund for the survivors of bombing in Iraq. She was told they'd ring her back. After a few days, the message came through: she must ring the Red Cross. She then rang round the other principal agencies to find that donations to the tsunami victims could be put through. Donations to the war victims in Iraq? I'm sorry, I'm not sure about that; we'll have to get back to you.

Fired up, she chased around the websites and found that a bit of Australian public money does find its way to Iraq. There are funds channelled through the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, the World Food Programme, UNHCR and UNICEF. Humanitarian work goes on. "But," she said, "people are so dim about it. You'd think we'd all forgotten that we tried to stop the war."

Two hundred thousand marched through Sydney, hundreds of thousands more around Australia; ten million or more round the world. It was a good day, February 16, 2003, the biggest turnout since Vietnam, one of those times of which people will say that they saw just about everyone they'd ever known.

Then, somehow, our world became docile and forgot. Energy drained away; this is Pleasantville where, as the little man notoriously said, we should be relaxed and comfortable.

We were back in that kitchen, all talking about nothing very much, when the household's visiting cousin joined us, here on holiday from the US. She, as a guest making friends, had brought some really classy wine – several bottles – and we were cheerfully into it; tongues loosened, cautious politeness dissolved. That was the awful thing, we said later, it was her wine.

The TV news came on, and there was Bush again talking democracy and freedom. One of us had the latest from the costofwar and iraqbodycount websites, and we got into a rave about hypocrisy, about who really had the WMDs in monster stockpiles, about children dying under coalition bombs, about ...

I turned to the guest, to make sure she felt included. As we drew breath she cut in, quiet, precise and angry: "What I hate about all this is that you sit there just assuming that I'm with you, you assume my agreement, and you don't bother to find out where I'm coming from at all."

There was a beat. OK, we said, so tell us.

She did. She said there was no equivalence between the victims of 9/11 and those of the coalition's bombing in Iraq. She said that if that was what it took to get rid of Saddam then that was it, it was war, like the German citizens who got killed while the Allies defeated Hitler and Nazism. Saddam was every bit as evil. She had the stats on the Shi'ite villages he'd mown down, the numbers of the Kurds he'd gassed, the surveillance of ordinary citizens.

One mouth opened then to remind her that all this was done with Western backing and Western hardware. Another opened to say that while Saddam was undoubtedly an evil tyrant, he wasn't the author of 9/11. Both closed helplessly as the guest – speaking with a gentle, lucid control that was scary enough in itself – gave none of us a nanosecond's chance.

She wound up: "I'm married to an American. I live there. Nine-eleven happened, it really happened, do you understand? And you talk as though there should be no damn consequences. And you insult me, talking as though I'd just fall into line with damn ignorant Australian peaceniks.

"Excuse me," she said to her cousin. "I want out of here. I'll be back." Without a blink toward the rest of us, she left.

We sat silent, ignominious, craven, the half-bottles of pinot noir standing round. We said sorry to her cousin, our friend, who shrugged, and waved the whole event gently aside; her body language said: this is the world, all this has happened before.

She saw us out: "Reality check, huh?"

Check. Each of us, silently, mulled over what she wished she could have said, and thought: but who'd be listening?

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