Coronavirus a testing time for Marape
The tragic flight of Mary Madsen

The library of unpalatable facts

Still from  ABC-TV footage of what appears to be an extra-judicial killing of an Afghani civilian by an Australian SAS soldier


TUMBY BAY - Apart from the escalating disaster of the coronavirus epidemic, a couple of other unsettling items have come to my notice this week.

The first was the release of the appalling footage of an Australian SAS soldier executing an unarmed villager in Afghanistan in May 2012.

The second was an email relating to a horrible and disgusting incident involving police and defence force personnel in Papua New Guinea in 1998.

In both cases it is apparent the authorities went to considerable lengths to cover up the events.

This made me think about the moral basis of such actions and about the nature of the people who had made the decisions to cover up – to try to ensure the incidents did not become known.

Covering up unpalatable facts has been widely practised by governments and bureaucracies since time immemorial. To decide that the public must not know is relatively commonplace.

Apart from the obvious advantage of avoiding embarrassment, sliding around the law and covering important people’s backsides, the excuse is that releasing such information will cause more harm than good.

It may breach security, it may invade privacy, it may traumatise people who don’t really need to know anyway, it may cause harm to the national interest…. There are many excuses available.

The excuse adopted in the Papua New Guinean incident I refer to is that traumatised people should not have more trauma heaped upon an old distress.

The Papua New Guinean incident in 1998 has yet to be exposed but no doubt it will be in the fullness of time.

I do not intend to canvass it here.

Why further hurt someone who has managed to get through the healing stage after personal trauma?

The cover up of the incident in Afghanistan exposed on Australian national television this week was apparently rationalised on the basis that reporting the incident would seriously and unnecessarily dent the reputation of Australia’s military forces, which has always been held in high regard by the Australian public.

A year or so ago Mathias Kin reported on a couple of unpalatable events involving official killings that occurred in colonial Papua New Guinea. His words attracted a lot of disapproval and outraged disbelief.

It seems that, whatever the motives of the people covering up such events, whether they be moral or cynically expedient, the truth will eventually be exposed, even if it is decades after the event.

We’ve all exercised similar moral discretions in the past, albeit not at the level noted here. Not telling a child that they are adopted or failing to mention illegitimate liaisons within the family are typical examples.

In this sense we are attuned to the tricky moral dilemmas that disclosure verses cover up presents.

We are also aware of the terrible capabilities of human beings to be cruel and ruthless to each other. We wear that knowledge as a sort of mental armour against the worst things we see and experience.

At the same time we also exhibit a remarkable capacity to shrug off even the most horrific human abuses and consistently fail to learn from the experience.

Time is a big healer people say. But the dirt we throw over unpalatable facts to conceal and forget them is often more likely to see them fester not heal.

My sense of the coronavirus epidemic is that the extraordinary measures being introduced to combat it far outweigh the apparent threat that it poses.

This makes me think that the threat is much more serious than our governments and authorities are telling us.

There are all the hallmarks of a cover up going on already.

I hope this is not the case. I hope this novel and terrible disease will not be a new volume added to the library of unpalatable facts.


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