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Arbitrarily to the gallows

  • 29 May 2006
Why 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. 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