Peace Crimes Brisbane launch
For five decades, the rallying cry of the protest movement against the space base, as it’s locally known, has been “Close Pine Gap”. Somewhat paradoxically, though, one of the key objectives of that movement has been to open Pine Gap, to shed light on what it actually does. And at its shining heart, that’s the achievement of Kieran Finnane’s book, “Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, National Security and Dissent”. It sheds light.
This should be no surprise. After all, as a journalist, that’s Finnane’s job: to observe, to inquire, to dig down into dark places, and to illuminate them. And there’s no darker, deeper place around here than Pine Gap.
Finnane could have written a whole book just about that darkness, the dark business of what Pine Gap does and how it does it: about shadowy networks of hovering geostationary satellites; about covert committees meeting in closed rooms to decide where to focus antennae so as to suck up all manner of electronic data and eavesdrop on whoever, wherever they choose; about Pine Gaps’ key role in carrying out extrajudicial terminations – or to use plainer language, murders – by targeting drone strikes in places we’ve never heard of, assassinating people whose names we’ll never hear.
About how thanks to the embarrassingly supine compliance and complicity of successive Australian governments with the United States military apparatus, Pine Gap has entangled us all in a radically dangerous geopolitical game, dicing with arbitrary death and mass destruction. Finnane has indeed documented all these things here, and she does so with admirable clarity, concision and precision, but peering into the darkness through the cracks in the formidable edifice of secrecy that conceals Pine Gap isn’t what this book is really about. If it were, a better title might have been “War Crimes”, not “Peace Crimes”.
No, what grips Finnane and what she comes to grips with after penetrating that dark matter, is the most gripping part of this book, the bright bit, the bit where the light gets into the crack that is in everything, the Leonard Cohen line quoted in the closing address to an Alice Springs jury sitting in that overweening, gleaming space capsule of a courthouse, near the end of the Supreme Court trials of the Peace Pilgrims, the perpetrators of the “peace crimes” this book is named for.
Finnane carefully and methodically describes how on 28 September 2016, five of the Peace Pilgrims walked into the Pine Gap prohibited area. She also describes how on the same night, a drone strike authorised by President Obama killed fifteen people in the village of Shadal in the Achin district of Nangahar province, Afghanistan. According to the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, most and perhaps all of the victims were civilians. According to Washington, they were all terrorists. As they explained to the jury in their trial a little over a year later, the Peace Pilgrims entered Pine Gap to disrupt the operations of the base in order to stop civilians being murdered by drone strikes like the one on the village of Shadal that night. The Peace Pilgrims said that they did what they did for a simple, fundamental reason. It was necessary.
I dare say that most people, whether they support or oppose Pine Gap, assume that the Peace Pilgrims are fruitcakes and even nutjobs, casually dismissing them as “weirdos”. That indeed is what I thought when I first heard about them. Finnane conscientiously and compellingly dismantles that prejudiced and prejudicial caricature, and draws us in to the quiet, committed, rigorous, loving world of Margaret, Jim, Franz, Andy, Tim and Paul. Over a period spanning 12 years, I got to know them and their fellow Christian activists, the Pine Gap Four, who had undertaken a similar action in 2005, in my capacity as their intermittent solicitor, and in that capacity I discovered that actually, they are the very opposite of weird. There’s nothing at all uncanny about them. Indeed, as courtroom tacticians, they were very canny indeed. Finnane deftly describes, with thinly disguised delight, how they made the QCs who’d been flown in from interstate at taxpayer expense to prosecute them flounder and squirm.
The Pine Gap Four eventually had their convictions overturned thanks to some even cleverer QCs who flew in from interstate (at their own expense) to help out. In 2017, the Peace Pilgrims couldn’t and didn’t avoid conviction (because in the interim, the Commonwealth Parliament had amended the law to plug the gap the cleverer QCs had exposed). I say “couldn’t avoid conviction” because unlike juries in England, the United States and New Zealand, no Australian jury has ever been defiant and independent enough to ignore a judge’s directions and acquit after being instructed that no legally available defence has been raised by the accused in a civil disobedience case like this. The Australian citizenry is unusually compliant.
But the Peace Pilgrims, without a lawyer to represent them in their trial, did something that had never been done before, not even by the Pine Gap Four: they opened Pine Gap, by persuading the trial judge to allow the jury to hear evidence from experts about what Pine Gap actually does, including an extraordinary interview with the late Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in which he explained why the base needs to be shut down. Finnane documents, day by day, how the Peace Pilgrims found a crack, and, millimetre by millimetre, prised it open, just enough to allow the light to trickle in.
That isn’t weird. It’s wonderful. It is also extremely rare. Governments go to a great deal of trouble to try to ensure that the legal system does not allow civilly disobedient citizens to prise open cracks in this way. Who knows where this sort of thing might lead?
This is a remarkable story that needs telling. And we are fortunate that such a remarkably clear-eyed, sharp-eyed, unflinchingly far-sighted member of our community has taken the trouble to tell it for us. Thank you, Kieran.