Arbitrarily to the gallows

Van NguyenWhy is it that so many Australians rallied around Van Nguyen as he faced the death penalty, and many still actively campaign for Schapelle Corby to be released from prison, while the ‘Bali Nine’ receive little sympathy, and the impending execution of Amrozi troubles only the ‘hard core’ opponents of the death penalty? The St James Ethics Centre’s informal terrorism and capital punishment survey reported a range of views.  Some called for vengeance; others believed that the laws of foreign countries are simply not Australia’s business.  Some people argued that applying the death penalty turns terrorists into martyrs, and that martyrdom may be considered a reward rather than a punishment.  Others wanted to inflict a lifetime of pain and suffering rather than ‘put an offender out of their misery’. Many believed that the State does not have the right to violate a person’s right to life. The differing responses of the community to particular cases appears to be driven more by emotion and social identification than principles, or practical reason. It is important to consider the circumstances surrounding the specific cases to understand the widely divergent reactions and sympathies, or lack thereof, which have emerged.

St James Ethics Centre
Many would put the case that the death penalty does not lead to lower crime rates in the countries that still employ it. Neither, it can be argued, is it logical for the State to demonstrate an opposition to murder by killing those who have practiced it. One wonders if killing Amrozi will put an end to murder, or terrorism - let alone bringing back to life the victims of this man and his accomplices. Similarly, some have argued, will shooting Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran stem the drug trade in south-east Asia?  When the experience of countries that impose the death penalty is considered, and the fact that the drug trade continues is remembered, it seems very unlikely that the enforcement of the death penalty is having the intended effect. 

The next question that opponents of the death penalty may ask is 'what happens if the justice system gets it wrong?'  It is sobering to note that new DNA evidence has lead to the acquittal of death row inmates in the USA (see Amnesty's website).  In some instances, the evidence has come to light after the punishment has been meted out - surely one of the grossest miscarriages of "justice" that can occur. This irrevocable form of punishment can become a danger to the society that practices it.

The primary opposition to the death penalty of some people is firmly grounded in the notion that it is a cruel and unnecessary punishment. Societies can use other, non-lethal methods to render offenders incapable of causing harm. Perhaps some doubt that it is not possible to restrain people like Amrozi, that he is evil made manifest, and that thus his right to life has been surrendered. The irony, and hypocrisy, of punishing of a man for arbitrarily ending lives, by arbitrarily ending his life, is surely inescapable. Surely it is more efficacious to seek to identify, understand and address these forces than to kill individuals after they have already acted in a violent manner? An eye for an eye, as Gandhi said, leaves us all blind.

Amnesty: Facts about the Death PenaltyIt can be hard to believe that people who have committed terrible crimes can really repent and reform. Van Nguyen committed a terrible crime, but he was very young when he committed that crime. Most of us have done stupid and/or destructive things in our lives, especially when young, and it could be argued that Van's case is just an extreme example.  Perhaps if Van Nguyen has been given the space and time to repent and consider his actions, he might have found the grace to face up to his crime, take responsibility for it, and perhaps even to try to make things right. It is possible to grow through an experience such as his, and to go on to contribute positively to our communities.  Many Australians saw this potential in Van Nguyen, especially given his age - but the death penalty denied him the opportunity to come to a fully-formed, adult understanding of what it was that he had done wrong. 

While Van Nguyen's case is one that raised questions and prompted debate about the rightness, or otherwise, of the application of the death penalty, it is perhaps far harder to imagine ourselves doing anything quite as foolish as the ‘Bali Nine’. The sheer folly of the enterprise, coming hot on the heels of the Corby arrest, and the blatant guilt of the group, test our capacity for sympathy. It could also be that class, ethnicity and looks have had something to do with our unwillingness to identify with the ‘Bali Nine’, or to feel compassion for them.  

What has been significant is that the 'human interest' angle that various news outlets have taken, on the occasions they have sought to be sympathetic, has focused on Renae Lawrence - someone who perhaps, through her youthfulness, has been seen as capable of redemption. Bali NineIt isn’t easy to feel that we have anything at all in common with a person such as Amrozi, on the other hand. A person who can smile and joke about killing innocent people, including our compatriots, does not elicit a lot of sympathy when facing the death penalty.  We don’t want to think that we are like Amrozi in any way.  We find it hard to see the image and likeness of God, or of a fellow man, in this character. Defending the seemingly indefensible can be a real test of will, and of faith. Is every human life sacred, and worthy of respect, or only some? The question of whether there can be redemption for such a person is vexing.  By choosing to condemn such a man, guilty as he may be, we set ourselves up to be accused of acting in the place of God. On the contrary, by actively defending the lives of Amrozi, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, we are working against the culture of death that their actions have served, and in favour of the fullness of life to which we are all called.

It cannot be stated strongly enough that the practice of the death penalty is, in and of itself, a danger to the society that practises it. It can only be hypocritical to condemn a man for murder, and then to commit murder in carrying out the sentence. Far more difficult, though nobler, is to believe in the possibility of redemption, and to offer forgiveness.




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