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Scapegoats galore!

Scapegoats Galore! was first published in Aurora, February – March, 2006. The article received a ‘highly commended’ award from the Australian Catholic Press Association in the category for ‘Best Social Justice Coverage’

By Edmond Nixon, C.Ss.R.

It was a sticky morning. Though the cock had crowed there was still no sun, no light. In the Singaporean pre-dawn 24 year old Thai-born Vietnamese Australian, Van Tuong Nguyen, was being walked to the gallows, his place of execution within the walls of the infamous Changi prison. Van was a scapegoat.

He was also a criminal. He had been arrested carrying 396.2 grams of heroin while attempting to board a plane to Australia. That's a lot of heroin. Had it actually reached the streets of Mayfield, Dandenong, Cairns or Launceston, it would have damaged the lives of thousands of citizens, maybe causing death. There is no doubt that Van was a criminal. He was also a scapegoat.


Here I don't want to speak about the death penalty, but about what allows executions to take place. I want to look at scapegoats and scapegoating.

Traditionally on the Jewish feast of Yom Kippur, two goats were brought into the temple courtyard. The high priest cast lots for them. According to the lots, one became a burnt offering. The other became the scapegoat. The high priest put his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessed the sins of the people of Israel . The scapegoat was led away and pushed over a distant cliff. Some accounts say it was driven out into the desert to wander and die. In either case the goat would “bear all (the people's) guilt away into some desolate place” (Leviticus16:22).

Accusing handIn popular culture a scapegoat is someone selected to bear blame for a calamity. We know them as patsies or suckers. Often they have been framed. Scapegoating is the act of holding a person, a group of people, or even a thing responsible for a multitude of problems.

Among relatives there is often a scapegoat or ‘black sheep' of the family. This person is blamed for what goes wrong at home. In extreme cases they are cast out of the family, cut off and left to wander through life as if they had no folk of their own.

Go back just two generations and young women who became pregnant out of wedlock were often cast out of both family and home. Meanwhile, the father of the child was protected by the culture of the time. He went on with life as normal and she, the one he had embraced, went off, wearing his and society's shame. Scapegoats are begotten in the midst of stigma and self-loathing. These are, in a sense, the garments of the scapegoat, the signs by which the rest of us recognise them.

In government, when something goes wrong, there's an enquiry. Commonly, as a result, some junior flunkey in the public service is held out to dry on a technicality, while those responsible go on and go free. Inevitably, there is a scapegoat.

When photos came to light of the inhumane treatment dished out by the US military in Iraq 's Abu Ghraib prison, there were enquiries. Members of the junior ranks were tried and imprisoned because they had broken military guidelines.

Yet the Public Broadcasting Service of the United States in its Frontline program “The Torture Question”, has presented evidence that both the culture and the instructions that allowed such violence to take place went right to the heart of the Pentagon  (see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/torture/view/). The junior ranks may have broken the law, but so had their superiors. The junior ranks went down, the superiors went on. Scapegoats!

Gay women and men, always a minority, and often a bit “different”, are a favourite group to scapegoat. Sometimes governments and churches are complicit. The results can be seen in the unduly high and quite unacceptable suicide rate among gay youth right here in Australia. Suicide is the leading cause of death among gay youth, one third occurring before the age of 17. Gay males attempt suicide at rates six times higher than do straight males.

Back in the 1930s the Nazis pointed to the Jews and made them “responsible” for all that was wrong with Germany's economy. From there, they created propaganda to argue for, and carry out the Shoah (Holocaust). In earlier times Christians pointed to Jews and called them Christ-killers. Through history the Jews have been scapegoats for the violence of others.

The great democracies of our time, caught in the transient grip of economic rationalism, also scapegoat whom they must. It is not uncommon for governments to blame the poor, the mentally ill and those without political access for much that ails our society. Our gaols are filled with the mentally ill and those who are not coping. Such a practice is not always obvious. It can't afford to be. Scapegoating, not only immoral, is presently politically incorrect. It is, therefore, commonly decorated in finely woven ‘spin' and elevated by shonky religious values.

The poor, and those without access, are far too often scapegoated. It is one of the reasons they are always with us. They are trapped there.

Some in the Church, maybe unwittingly, have co-operated in the scapegoating of the poor. In the Jubilee Year 2000, the church's call to restore justice was often watered down to an individual piety unmindful of the poor. But from the life of Jesus we know “justice is a constitutive dimension of the Gospel” ( Paul VI , Justice in the World). In the Year of the Eucharist 2005, the Eucharist was sometimes celebrated and highlighted in a way exclusive of the poor. Yet, “from a full communion with Christ comes every other element of the life of the Church …[including] the ardor of charity towards all, especially towards the poor and the smallest” (Benedict XVI, 24 April 2005 ).

In December, 2005, on our television screens, we saw a drunken, enraged mob belting into one man of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’ at Cronulla beach. The man was stigmatised as “Middle Eastern” and blamed for Cronulla's woes. “Let's get him” “Let's teach them a lesson” were comments heard. The Lebanese man was a scapegoat.

Later that night, under cover of darkness, motorcades of young men from Sydney's west returned to the beach suburbs, hauling locals out of their cars, smashing windscreens, belting up people in their driveways and on their front lawns. Such violence could only happen because this retaliatory raid also needed scapegoats, and scapegoats were randomly chosen.

The bullying that raises its head in any school playground is based on blaming, shaming, ridiculing, scapegoating. Some “chosen” youngster is cast out into a bewildering oblivion wearing heavily on his/her shoulders the incomprehensible curse of the playground mob. We are young when we learn to scapegoat!

In each of these cases, something that is unacceptable in the group is cast off and projected onto some vulnerable individual or group. Most unacceptable to people is the violence, sometimes unconscious, that lives in their hearts, their family, their church, and in society at large. Violence is easy to project onto a scapegoat.

This violence is far too horrifying to deal with, it is too close. And just as an infant, horrified by the skin on the milk touching its lips, will spit it out spontaneously, so men and women, horrified by what is unacceptable in their midst, spontaneously eject it out onto those other men and women vulnerable enough to receive the projection.

“What is happening here,” says theologian James Alison, “is that fault is being transferred, responsibility is being avoided, and someone else is being indicated as the author of evil.” (The Joy of Being Wrong Crossroad New York 1997 p.133)

This is the sleight of hand that begets scapegoating. It is the sleight of hand that seemingly justifies violence - in the home, the schoolyard, the church or society. And it includes executions.

This is particularly dangerous when God, or the law, is invoked to justify the transfer of fault and the avoidance of responsibility. Some Muslim fundamentalists invoke God in this process, and then their violence feels justified. Christians, too, have had a record of violence and death all done in God's name. The danger for Christianity today is less a scapegoating that brings about physical violence, but one that is psychologically and spiritually violent to the tenderness of the human conscience. In a sense the last is more insidious than the first, for it can go unnoticed as it strikes at the integrity of the human person.

There are plenty of scapegoats around drugs. In most societies heavy drugs are not only unacceptable but illicit. They harm human beings. Society, however, has double standards. Alcohol and cigarettes are both dangerous, yet a sleight of hand makes them acceptable and licit. The drugs issue always has been, and still is complex. Stephen Soderbergh's 2000 film, Traffic, highlights some of the issues surrounding the problem of drugs.

The complexity around drugs is rooted in supply and demand. The demand, based on addiction, is permanently there. Most people are addicted to one thing or another. It is a way of dulling life's pains. An addicted society singles out drug addicts particularly to wear the opprobrium of addiction. Society drives the drug trade. While there is a demand, there will be a supply. Those who sing the merits of supply and demand economics can also be the ones who, in the case of drugs, scapegoat the little people caught up in the supply and demand that we call ‘traffic' . Society looks for scapegoats who, of course, happened to have ‘broken the law'. The little people, the drug mules and petty traffickers, go down. The suppliers, the heavy traffickers and those who fuel supply go on and go free.

And so we come back to Van Nguyen, 24. The death penalty does not prevent crime, particularly when the crime is driven by addiction and greed. But it is easy for any society, tired of its problems and addictions, to load them onto the vulnerable and the few. It is easy for any society to make the vulnerable face what it cannot face itself – the death in its midst.

To conclude, some good news. There is a man, somewhat down on his luck, who regularly sits in a particular Newcastle street and begs. He is usually not a little dishevelled though mostly of good humour. One day on my walk, I saw a group of three teenage boys approaching him. I witnessed their gracious greeting to him, their easy conversation, and grass roots respect. I rejoiced much at the way these boys enfolded the man in their camaraderie and treated him as an equal.

Often, for the sake of kudos among mates, it would have been easy for those boys to scapegoat the old man. They didn't! I rejoiced, too at the families and schools that had nurtured these young men.

Redemptorist theologian, Kevin O'Shea, says, “We discover ourselves to be, in reality, not violent (needing a scapegoat), but tender (open to relationship).” That's what the teenage boys had discovered among themselves and with the man on the street. In the way he approached his own execution, Van Nguyen also rediscovered this tenderness. It was there in the way he sought forgiveness of those whom he had hurt, the way he related with fellow prisoners, with his gaolers and with the hangman. Ultimately, it was there in the way he related with his God. Paradoxically, he rediscovered this tenderness amidst the projected violence of a particular national power at a particular time in human history. He discovered it while being a scapegoat.