Terrorism and capital punishment
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 53 spring 2003
The decision to sentence the convicted Bali bombers, Amrozi and Imam Samudra, to death was always going to cause controversy in Australia. For some the reaction to the news of these penalties was immediate and emotional – with opinion divided amongst those who thought the sentence appropriate and others who rejected the notion that the tragedy of innocent lives lost should further be compounded by the execution of the convicted criminals.
Although it was to be expected that community opinion would be divided, the reaction of senior governent ministers was somewhat surprising. Australia has a long-established position of opposition to capital punishment – a view that has been consistently supported for more than three decades by governments of all political persuasions. Indeed, Australia’s opposition to the death penalty has been one of the points of reference for our self-identification as a civilised nation of moderately decent people.
So, it was unsettling to observe a succession of senior politicians abandoning this national consensus; apparently refusing to stand up for the established principles of our nation. Instead, it was as if the heated, domestic political environment was judged to require our leaders to ‘do a Pontius Pilate’ and wash their hands of the matter. This they did in a range of ways.
Perhaps the most infamous response was the claim that it would be inappropriate for an Australian government to express a contrary view in relation to any matter determined under the laws of another nation – especially when only affecting the lives of non-Australian citizens. This was ethical relativism in full cry – giving rise to the unusual spectacle of an Australian government apparently denying itself the right ever to comment on the application of law in another country.
It’s difficult to believe that Australia’s political leadership has thought through the implications of what it was saying. Is it really to be part of Australian policy that we remain officially indifferent in the face of great evil visited upon people under the cloak of legality? If this is a serious proposition, then all that a vicious tyrant, in the mould of Saddam Hussein, would have to do is pass a few laws to cover his brutality – and Australia would remain silent.
We are left to wonder why it was that we did not see a concerted effort by the Australian Government to politely and quietly give voice to those things that bring out the best in our national character. The victims of terrorism should have been embraced and nurtured. At the same time, we could have resisted the all-too-natural urge to cry for retribution – lest we inadvertently become a little more like those who hated enough to kill in Bali.
There are arguments that can be made for both sides of the debate. However, beyond the bounds of rational argument are questions of character. Ethical issues are not just about what you ought to do. They also include questions about who you ought to be.