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The big questions - Aussie values, life and death

By Mark Christensen - posted Thursday, 15 September 2005


I’ve no doubt the Prime Minister is concerned for our personal safety. Ditto Bush and Blair. I just don’t know if sincerity is sufficient to unravel the puzzling business of global terrorism.

In fact, the desperate emotions often bundled up with their good intentions can actually distract us from the truth. Effusive politicians constantly convince themselves passion and commitment alone justify any manner of personal delusion.

John Howard has called a National Summit on counter-terrorism for later this month. Announcing it, he said: “The most important civil liberty I have - and you have - is to stay alive and to be free from violence and death.”

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I’m keen on living, but I don’t think this is right. And saying so doesn’t mean I’m unappreciative or an apologist for terror. For me, the Australian identity is characterised by a pragmatic and irreverent belief there is something more vital than life itself. What distinguishes us most is that our benign worshipping has been sustained without a cheerleading claim to God, glory or freedom.

Until recently at least, we didn’t second-guess, accepting life’s mystery is present and real enough even if it cannot be named or forced in a lasting way.

“There are just no words for it … and it is not something you dig for but sits on the top of the table like an unopened dewy beer can”, declared John Updike, whose Rabbit novels must surely qualify him as an honorary Aussie.

Think about it. If staying alive was our ultimate calling, we would ban boxing, all drive Volvos at 50 km/h and the death penalty would guarantee civility. So there must be something more. Mortality would be too cruel a joke if life was all it was.

Assuming God is not a demented prankster, death, therefore, cannot be as ruinous as forgetting what’s even more profound. Or, as Albert Schweitzer once put it: “The tragedy of life is what dies in a man while he is still alive.”

While we may accept this momentarily, it’s hard to stay acquainted with such a challenging reality. Once lost, there’s an easy momentum for white lies and the denial of lesser truths. Australia now seems to be on this slippery slope. And we are clambering for some honest traction from our leaders - probably because we can’t find it ourselves.

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Patriotic claims that terrorists will never dictate the way we live is a classic example. The truth is they have changed our lives. Remember when airport security wasn’t just shy of a strip-search and you didn’t hesitate to mock the self-importance of those obsessed with the evilness of others?

The PM’s summit will demand we further curb our easy-going lifestyle. It’s true, governments are expected to do something, but let’s at least admit the stupidity of suggesting we are proudly defiant and then inflict controls that respond to what is supposedly irrelevant.

Unless we are honest about what we are doing, we risk institutionalising untruths like Australians value survival above all else or there’s a formula for sorting terrorism. Counter-terrorism efforts may be needed in the absence of a solution, but we shouldn’t pretend they are the solution.

Admitting this at the summit would be neither weak nor play into the hands of extremists. It’s rational and humane to acknowledge there’s a point at which life becomes so artless we condemn ourselves to never cracking open Updike’s cold one (which is probably pretty warm by now).

I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to be confused either. Rather than be alert not alarmed, I reckon we need to be detached but not disinterested. The truth for its own sake is a far better protection than good intentions, especially when it includes an unemotional account of what it is Australians truly value.

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Article edited by Chris Smith.
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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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