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The logic of the Bali death machine


Scott RushIt was reported in the New York Times (24 February 2009) that many states in the USA are considering abolishing the death penalty, not because of growing moral reservations about the ultimate form of punishment, but in order to reduce costs.

Unfortunately the dead men walking in Indonesia's prisons cannot hope for a flow-on effect. Among them are Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and Scott Rush, whose cases inch towards a climax that may include a hail of bullets near dawn on a remote Bali beach.

Luke Davies' essay, 'The Penalty is Death' in the September edition of The Monthly, based on interviews with Sukumaran, Chan and their families, succeeded in humanising the convicted 'ringleaders' (as they are usually branded) of the Bali 9.

But the most chilling element of Davies' report pertains not to the Bali 9 but to another high-profile death row case. Davies cites a letter addressed to Kim Nguyen, Van Nguyen's mother, informing her that the death sentence passed on her son would be carried out on 2 December 2005 in Singapore's Changi Prison.

'Please do not hesitate to contact our officers-in-charge if you have any queries', it notes with cold neutrality, as if it were a response to a disputed water bill. 'You are requested to make the necessary arrangements for him. However, if you are unable to do so, the State will assist in cremating the body.'

Van Nguyen knew he had to die. But did he know why he had to die? The proportionality of crime and punishment and the impact of the sentence on his family were not serious considerations for the judge who passed the sentence on him, or for the Singaporean Government that denied him clemency.

He died because a faceless system said he must. His death ensured that the system continued according to a blinkered logic that took little account of who he was, how he might have changed, and why he had committed the crime. 'Possession of 396 grams of heroin' was entered into the machine. 'Death by hanging' was the output.

I am reminded of Franz Kafka's short story 'In the Penal Colony'. The traveller is invited to witness the execution of a soldier 'condemned for insubordination and insulting an officer', although 'interest in the execution seemed not to be that great in the penal colony'.

The colony employs a unique and complex machine, invented by the previous commandant, to carry out its executions. Much of the story is taken up by the proud officer's explanation of how the machine works. As part of the 12 hour process, the condemned man will 'have the law he has transgressed inscribed by the harrow [part of the machine] on his body'.

The officer, also judge in the colony, explains that in his court 'guilt is always beyond doubt'. But the tide has turned and the officer, who has inherited custodianship of the machine, is now one of the few remaining supporters of this mode of execution.

It becomes apparent that, to the officer at least, preserving the endangered form of punishment (at any cost, as it turns out) is more important than the crimes it serves to deter. He asks of the traveller: 'Do you think it's right that such a lifework' — he pointed to the machine — 'should be allowed to rot?'

'And so it has been and so it is written/On the doorway to paradise/That those who falter and those who fall/Must pay the price!' sings Javert in Les Miserables, unshaken in his conviction that 24601, as he prefers to call Jean Valjean, is marked for life by the petty crimes he committed decades earlier.

Theatre audiences, having empathised with Valjean from the beginning, ponder what handicap prevents Javert from seeing the good man that Valjean has become. The passing of judgments on our fellow humans based on pure linear reason, without any emotional or moral input, does indeed reflect a mental deficiency.

When in the 18th and 19th centuries the concept of human rights gradually gained popular support, a critical mass of Europeans and Americans began to empathise more with those who were not friends, family, co-religionists, or of the same social class.

It is reasonable to assert that the combination of access to Enlightenment thinking and direct experience of state-sanctioned torture and murder contributed to changes in justice systems. Much later they culminated in most countries in the abolition of the death penalty.

If Rush, Sukumaran and Chan are to survive, new generations must place themselves in the shoes of Kafka's traveller and imagine the harsh realities of 21st century executions and what they say about us. They must engage with the struggles of earlier generations.

None of the Bali 9 is a monster, nor was Van Nguyen. It is important that we ask why the condemned need to die, if that is to be their ultimate sentence. If you answer 'because the law says so', think again. The clock is ticking.

Peter HodgePeter Hodge is a teacher and freelance journalist.

Topic tags: bali 9, van nguyen, luke davies, death penalty, kafka, the penal colony, capital punishment, Sukumaran



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Existing comments

A thoughtful and challenging piece, Peter.

Joe Castley | 04 March 2009  

Thanks for the article, the death penalty is just wrong - I do not believe that the States are abolishing to reduce costs - it costs to keep in gaol - your references to literature great, thanks.

maeraid ni fahaig | 04 March 2009  

Great article. I can just but wonder why those Bali 9 can't be sent back to Australia to complete their sentences. Surely, that would be cheaper for Indonesia than the trials and keeping them in jail for such a length of time.

Philippa Jayne Boyington | 05 March 2009