Stephen Smith is a regular Webdiarist. His last piece was The AWB scam – how the ‘wheat mafia’ paid Saddam.
By Stephen Smith
Those seeking justice for David Hicks have run a campaign using a childhood photo of him. What interests me about the photo is how it unwittingly taps into more than was intended. The photo opens doors into the minds of the Hicks-haters. We can call this the David Hicks Syndrome . It is a type of bullying where the perpetrators – John Howard and his sidekicks – perceive David Hicks as a loner in the schoolyard.
They are simply unable to see themselves in Hicks’ shoes. While they hate the boyhood image they see in David, their self-image is that of a schoolyard gang of bullies. 
Let’s begin by placing the whole gang in a virtual schoolyard. This is not hard to do. As we are often reminded, Parliament resembles a school playground. It is dominated by male egos, bullying tactics and tantrum like displays. We need only look at one of its best practitioners, ‘Pistol Pete’ Costello, who can destroy and humiliate opponents on the floor of Parliament. What is new is how Howard has transplanted bullying tactics out of the Big House to Australia at large. In the figure of Hicks we witness how his boyhood image (now brought to life by his photo) brings to light a long record of bullying by the Howard gang. At first they corner the loner when they think no one watches or cares. But like all cowards, public notice (or opinion polls) sees them quickly backing off with mumbled excuses.
One hangover from school days is the use of nicknames. Here we find a full cast of characters. Howard himself has too many nicknames to mention. The most descriptive is ’Stonefish’. Ruddock is tagged as ‘Davros’ (Dalek emperor) or ‘Mr Hat’ (South Park). Then there is ‘Dolly’ Downer – or ‘Krusty the Clown’. Those in need of spiritual guidance turn of course to Abbott – the ‘Mad Monk’ or simply ‘Rasputin’.
Where Hicks is concerned it is hard not to hear the trash talk that the Government indulges in. No debating team skills here. Instead it is all huff and puff from Downer who hits out at those “barracking” for David Hicks. “Barracking” conjures up images of a bored and unruly public (school) cheering on Hicks in the act of some misdemeanor. No doubt it would have to be ‘bombing’ into the pool at the swimming carnival as enraged prefects look on.
To the bullies, David Hicks represents the delinquent who went to the wrong schools. His type never did appear in the pages of Boys Own Adventure. It was bad form indeed for Hicks to be caught on film with that rocket launcher in Kosovo. After all, any decent fellow would head over to Africa and smuggle guns for mercenaries. As The Guardian commented about Mark Thatcher:
“Who among us can honestly say that our children have never done anything a little bit naughty in the past? Sneaking a chocolate from the second layer in the box when no one was looking; going into next door’s garden to get their ball back without asking; funding military coups in third-world countries with an eye to making an illegal fortune. No child is perfect and they grow out of these things; he’s only 51, for goodness sake.”
Every gang has its hangers-on who spread misinformation by word or whisper. In the Howard posse, we see how Gerard Henderson creates his own caricature who lurks behind the bike shed. What playground does not have its name-caller? Sure enough, on the fringe of the Little Johnny Howard gang we find Little Gerard Henderson. There he is, running around with his annoying “na-na na na na” cries of name-calling.
In his column, Henderson referred to Hicks by his allegedly adopted name of “Mohammed Dawood”. Yet, as Irfan Yusuf argued on Crikey, there is no evidence Hicks retains this name. Nor is the name known by either his family or by other inmates of ‘Gitmo’. Henderson’s intent is to imply guilt by association. As if Hicks’ fate is in any way determined by names given to him! But still, Henderson seems to regard the name itself as irrefutable proof of guilt.
Henderson next turned his whispering campaign (at a safe distance) to a larger field. In his column of 13 February, he defended John Howard for attacking the “US Democratic Party presidential aspirant Barack Hussein Obama”. This use of the “Hussein” word was a copycat stunt by Henderson. It was a US Fox News smear campaign that began using Obama’s middle name of “Hussein”.
Let’s not dwell too long on such antics without a hard look at the pain and injustice that continues in its wake. It is the impunity of power that sustains Howard’s virtual schoolyard in the mind. This is not merely arrested development. More like cruel and sadistic. According to Amnesty International, at least 17 detainees at Guantanamo Bay were underage (aged 16 years and younger) at their time of capture. Many of these children were caged and tortured - or in turn witnessed these sights. The Howard Government was always a cheerleader for the Camp guards. And yet their branding of the ‘worst of the worst’ makes no exemption for children. By a bleak irony it seems that one of the child detainees – Canadian citizen Omar Khadr - now joins Hicks as one of three inmates chosen to begin the military commission process. David Hicks (a victim of abuse in Howard’s fantasy) now finds himself shoulder to shoulder with a detainee who was an actual child victim of the system that feeds the Government’s David Hicks Syndrome.
In our analysis, the distortion of seeing the image of the boy – the outsider – in David Hicks is consistent – disturbingly so – with other victims of the Howard Government. The long suffering of children in immigration detention in Australia has been well documented by The Human Rights Commission. Other victims have been adults humiliated and reduced to the status of children.
The Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon cases illustrate exactly how the maltreatment of sick adults placed them in a similar state of dependency as children. The treatment of Hicks is not some anomaly but an example of a psychosis that stains Howard’s decade of power.
The moral detachment of Howard from the David Hicks story can be understood in terms of the way our PM, in true neocon style, creates his own reality for others to follow. The self-image of Howard as ‘king pin’ demands that the figure of Hicks be regressed into the bully’s target of abuse. This peculiar form of politics (the need to constantly identify an ‘enemy’) and the resulting lack of empathy is a recurring pattern for Howard. Let’s recall how The Canberra Times columnist Ian Warden viewed Howard’s branding of asylum seekers as ‘the enemy’. 
Quoting J M Coetzee, Warden makes the point that part of the horror of the Nazi death camps was that German society refused to think themselves into the place of their victims. Some people can imagine themselves as someone else. But many others have the capacity but choose not to exercise it. There are also those people completely lacking this capacity (with an extreme lack found in the psychopath). In reading John Howard’s particular lack of capacity, Warden sees him as one of those who would “feign an ability to imagine themselves as someone else, who would pretend to have hearts that have a talent for sympathy (as Coetzee defines it) if ever the opinion polls showed that it was more politically artful to feign kindness towards detainees than to continue to display the probably sincerely-felt belief that they are just lice.”
With David Hicks, Howard is again feigning concern on the basis that the opinion polls are turning against him. Otherwise, his lack of capacity to imagine himself in Hicks’ predicament is amply shown by Howard’s statement to his party room that he could secure the release of David Hicks any time – but won’t.
This year’s federal election may well bring new gang colors to the pole. If Kevin (‘Harry Potter’) Rudd triumphs we can only hope that he locks the playground posturing and bullying back inside the Parliament where it belongs.
David Hicks’ five years of anguish has been, during Howard’s term, a detention overseen by the Prefects from Hell. When Hicks is finally free he might well sing along to this anthem to the ending of his worst nightmare:
Well we can’t salute ya
Can’t find a flag
If that don’t suit ya
That’s a drag
School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces
(School’s Out – Alice Cooper)
 Syndrome: a group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterise a disease, psychological disorder, or other abnormal condition.
 I use the term ‘schoolyard gang’ as a dramatic device. It places the conduct of the Howard ‘gang’ in a setting we are familiar with via film and literature. I have no wish to demean childhood. The truth is that in the main, the behavior of children is exemplary and nothing like the contemptible display we see before us in the shape of political spin.
 Ian Warden, “Exposing the heart of dilemma faced by asylum-seekers”, The Canberra Times, 8 January 2004.