On 29 January 1948, a ‘big airplane’ crashed over Los Gatos Canyon in California. According to witnesses, the plane exploded and a wing fell off. Some of the passengers jumped or fell out as the plane crashed. The fuel tanks ignited when the plane hit the ground. All thirty-two people aboard the plane were killed, ‘scattered like dry leaves’ to rot on the ground.
Each of those killed had a name. The pilot was Frank Atkinson, the co-pilot was Marion Ewing, the flight attendant was Bobbi Atkinson, married to the pilot, and the immigration guard was Frank E. Chapin. Twenty-eight other people were killed in the ‘fireball of lightning’, 27 men and one woman whose body was found with baby clothes next to her. The name given to these other passengers in reports of the crash was ‘deportee’.
The plane had been chartered by the US Immigration Service for a ‘routine transfer’ of Mexican agricultural workers, some of whom had entered the US illegally, and others who had outstayed their work contracts. The plane left Oakland in the morning to fly south to El Centro processing centre, and on to Mexico. The remains of the ‘deportees’ were buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, their names unrecorded.
Woody Guthrie’s lament Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) sang of the lives of these ‘deportees’:
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
Guthrie’s song asked,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, ‘They are just deportees’
Like the Los Gatos ‘deportees’, the ‘asylum seekers’ of contemporary Australian politics who lie dissolved in the seas around us are largely unnamed. When the boat named SIEV-X sank on 19 October 2001, 353 bodies lay ‘like birds on the water’. The Australian government has refused to release their names. In answer to a question from Greens Senator Bob Brown, Senator Ellison told the Australian Senate on 11 August 2003, ‘A list was provided to the AFP [Australian Federal Police] from a confidential source after the vessel sank. Provision of any details of that list would compromise that source. It may also compromise a current ongoing investigation in Indonesia. The list purports to contain some details of passengers, but its veracity has not been tested. The AFP believes it is unlikely that a full and comprehensive list of those who boarded SIEV-X or those who subsequently drowned will ever be available.’ In 2005, Senator Brown again asked for the list of names, and was again rebuffed. Senator Vanstone replied: ‘The Government has no way of knowing or verifying all those who drowned, being an illegal venture out of another country with the tragedy occurring at an unknown location. Some names of those who have thought to have drowned are held … The Government does not hold comprehensive information nor is it in a position to verify it.’
Some of the names of the people on SIEV-X have been collected, mostly from the reports of survivors of the sinking. The names of other refugees dissolved in the seas around Australia since SIEV-X are also determined by the government as not to be known.
But these bodies, their names, their stories, and the infinite preciousness of their lives, were dissolved not by the sea but by a deadly language of ‘national security’ that licenses both cruelty and indifference to them. This language removes the unnamed ‘asylum seekers’ into the category and name of ‘outlaws’, out of the protection of the law of the land or of the law of the sea. And this language removed them out of the category of friends to whom the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises that we have a duty to act ‘in a spirit of brotherhood’. This language tells those who would follow them that they have no right to escape desperation, inequality or persecution, and that no security in law will be provided to them if they do attempt to escape.
Many writers have bemoaned the way in which ‘national security’ has become empty code for a generalised fear of unnamed others. But ‘national security’ does have meaning. It means that Australia and all nations are pledged by right and by generosity of character to protect the personal security and liberty of those who are its friends, friends by virtue of their humanity.
Goodbye to my Habib, goodbye, Azizah,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
Helen Pringle (c) July 2012
Woody Guthrie, http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Deportee.htm
SIEV X 353, http://www.sievxmemorial.com/about-sievx.html
Parliamentary Question, Senators Brown and Ellison, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansards%2F2003-08-11%2F0152%22
Parliamentary Question, Senators Brown and Vanstone, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansards%2F2003-08-11%2F0152%22
SIEV X Passenger Names, http://sievx.com/archives/2003_07-08/20030819.shtml
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
Dr Helen Pringle lectures in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). A respected human rights, ethics and political commentator, she contributes regularly to online publications, her work having appeared in OnLine Opinion and now in New Matilda. Her scholarship has been recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women (AFUW) and Australian universities. Her chapter ‘A Studied Indifference to Harm: Defending Pornography in ‘The Porn Report’ appears in ‘Big Porn Inc – Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry’, published in 2011.