Barbed wire: a symbol of oppression

Drawing by child detainee in Woomera

The conspicuous presence of barbed wire in Australian immigration detention centres, such as Rudd’s newly re-opened Curtin detention centre, is a reminder of the inhuman pedigree of these grim despair factories.

It is no accident that barbed wire — or the “devil’s rope” as the First Nations people of North America called it — has accompanied and facilitated many of the worst crimes against humanity of the modern era.

As observed in Barbed Wire: A Political History by Olivier Razac (2002), barbed wire “produces a kind of shock when it is used to enclose people, shaking their certitude that they are human. It confirms their fate: like beasts, they are to be worked or slaughtered.” Barbed wire excludes and includes, magnifying “differences between the inside and the outside”.

Barbed wire has long been connected to crimes against humanity. Invented in the 1860s and mass produced in the US from the 1870s, barbed wire’s first victims were the roaming tribes of the Great Plains, after the 1887 Dawes Act handed over vast tracts of indigenous land to white farmers.

By fencing in their newly-acquired plots with this new, cheap and simple technology, white farmers managed to confine the “Indians” in reservations, depriving them of access to traditional hunting grounds.

At a stroke, the wire made the environment foreign and hostile to roaming indigenous groups, many of which suffered annihilation as a result. Similar uses were found for barbed wire as a tool of dispossession on the Australian frontier.

During the same period, barbed wire was increasingly employed by a brutal Spanish colonial regime in Cuba.

Facing the rising tide of a popular independence revolt, the military governor divided the island up into strategic zones and herded Cuban civilians into prisons dubbed “campos de concentracion” (the origin of the term “concentration camp”). A hundred thousand Cubans are estimated to have perished in the camps. The expedient of barbed wire made it all possible.

In South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Lord Kitchener employed similarly brutal tactics against civilians.

Pursuing a scorched earth policy of wholesale land clearance, British and Dominion troops (including Australian forces) burned farms and abducted Boer and black African population groups, confining non-combatants in open-air internment camps.

Starvation and disease took their toll on women and children behind the makeshift barbed-wire perimeters. Death rates soared into the tens of thousands before the war’s end, outraging progressive opinion around the world (mainly, it must be said, on account of the white victims).

The battlefields of the Western Front during World War One were rendered especially hideous by developments in defensive technology such as barbed wire. The methodical machine-gun slaughter of soldiers as they vainly struggled through the wire remains one of the enduring images of the war.

The soldier and anti-war poet Wilfred Owen was haunted by the sight of dying victims entangled in the wire of no man’s land, describing in Exposure the “twitching agonies of men amongst its brambles”.

Barbed wire, often electrified, was an essential feature of Nazi concentration and death camps. Accounts by survivors rarely omit a mention of the deadly wire, which has become inextricably linked in memory with the extermination process.

“Passing the gate as we entered Birkenau”, recalled the Polish-born Melburnian Abraham Biderman, “we saw on our left the body of a man hanging on the electric wires … His eyes and mouth were wide open in a silent, deafening scream”.

Given its indelible association with the horrors of the Holocaust experience, the proliferation of barbed wire in IDF-run internment camps for Palestinians is a particularly damning indictment of present-day Israeli policy.

The symbolic power of barbed wire is the reason why many governments around the world (such as Sweden’s) have made a considered decision to avoid its employment in the context of refugee processing facilities.

Yet, since 1992, Labor and Liberal Australian governments pursuing a “get-tough” policy of mandatory detention have deliberately overseen the proliferation of barbed wire in the Australian landscape.

In August 2009, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration issued a report which recommended the removal of barbed-wire fencing and other “draconian” high security measures from all immigration detention centres.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans immediately rejected the proposal, arguing that it would be “financially unfeasible”.

The real reason lies in the “dog-whistle” politics surrounding the sight of barbed wire on the commercial evening news.

As an architectural inclusion of detention centres, the wire allows the non-white, non-Christian “invalid arrivals” incarcerated behind it to be criminalised, dehumanised and worked for right-wing populist political gain.

Technology may well be neutral, but malign agencies have always possessed a seemingly infinite capacity to employ it for oppressive purposes.

When viewed in light of the appalling role it has played throughout history, nothing could be more potent than the wire as a symbol of human captivity, degradation and torture.

Dismantle the barbed wire, and the policies that underpin it.