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DEATH PENALTY: ‘NO MERCY, NO HOPE’

by Dr Simon Longstaff
26 February 2015
LAW, JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS
With Indonesian president Joko Widodo (known in Indonesia as Jokowi) insistent that convicted Australian drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran will be lined up before a firing squad, our Executive Director Dr Simon Longstaff asks if the ends justifies the means.


I write this as the lives of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran hang in the balance.
 
The discussion of the fate of Chan and Sukumaran raises as many profound questions for Australians as it does for our neighbours in Indonesia. For our part, these questions include the following: are we genuinely opposed to the application of the death penalty per se? Or are we only outraged by the possible execution of Australians? If we oppose the death penalty for all, then did we do all we could to petition for clemency in the case of Imam Samudra, Amrozi Nurhasyim and Huda bin Abdul Haq, the infamous ‘Bali Bombers’ executed for their part in that atrocity? Did the terrorists’ apparent lack of remorse and repentance make a difference to our collective judgement in their case? Would Chan and Sukumaran be abandoned if they too remained unreformed? How would our attitudes change if a convicted person preferred death to life imprisonment (as a few do)? Is it legitimate to consider the relative financial cost to the community of all options – or is this an area where economic calculation has no rightful place?
 
These are just some of the questions that arise at the individual level. However, President Jokowi’s policy of showing no mercy for convicted drug traffickers gives rise to an even larger issue with which we must contend.
 
The essence of President Jokowi’s position is that the harshest of means (death by firing squad) is justified by the ends of saving his citizens from the blight of addiction and death at the hands of those who profit from the illicit trade in narcotics. Although it is difficult to check the statistics, the Indonesian Government claims that approximately fifty people lose their lives to this menace – every day. President Jokowi’s policy of ‘no mercy, no hope’ for convicted drug traffickers is his answer to the slogan ‘Stop the Drugs’.
 
What then of the slogan ‘Stop the Boats’? It is difficult not to see a close parallel between the reasoning of President Jokowi, when dealing with convicted drug dealers, and that of recent Australian Governments (Labor and Liberal) when dealing with the plight of those fleeing oppression and persecution by boat in hope of asylum. In its most potent form, recent policy has been very much in the vein of ‘no mercy, no hope’.
 
Of course, no Australian Government would ever intend the death of asylum seekers. However, policies that include the possibility of indefinite detention, conditions of confinement that rob a person of their sanity and the promise that no person coming by boat will ever be settled in Australia, are clearly designed to deter any future attempts by asylum seekers to breach the seal of Australia’s sovereign borders by sea. In a direct echo of President Jokowi, the Australian Government ultimately measures the success of its policies in lives saved (at least from death by drowning).
 
I have no doubt that some people will object to any comparison that is made between the Jokowi Government’s use of the death penalty as the ultimate deterrent (that does not work) and the policies of various Australian Governments in response to asylum seekers coming by boat (which in the case of the Abbott Government has ‘stopped the boats’). Clearly, no Australian government has intended the death of asylum seekers. Indeed, the very opposite has been one of their declared aims. So, at that level, I believe any comparison to be unfair and unwarranted. However, there is a deeper level at which the linkage deserves serious consideration by all Australians. Specifically, do we accept or reject the underlying claim that the ‘ends justify the means’?
 
In my opinion, the idea that ‘the ends justify the means’ (or that we should ‘do whatever it takes’) is one of the most pernicious principles yet conceived by humankind. It is the recognition of the terrible force of this idea that lies behind the warning that, ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions’. Yet, more and more people are taking this road, enthralled by their belief in the absolute virtue of their cause; accepting as ‘necessary – if sometimes tragic’ the destruction they cause along the way. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with ‘good intentions’ – the trouble comes when people pursue their noble ideals without the restraint of firm ethical boundaries.
 
The most extreme examples of this maxim can be found in the thoughts and deeds of totalitarian regimes and their supporters. Armed with absolute certainty – political, religious … whatever – the totalitarians are willing to kill, torture, terrorise and degrade in order to bring about their ‘perfect state’. ISIS is just the latest example of this malignant approach to the world. Before them, there were Christian Crusaders, Islamic ‘Mahdis’, Fascists, Marxists, Maoists and unnamed others … all prepared to commit atrocities with the conviction that their deeds were vindicated by the attainment of some greater good.
 
The attention given to such extreme cases can make us blind to lesser examples that lie on the same ‘ends-means’ spectrum. The execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran is just such a case. The Australian Immigration Minister saying that he will “do whatever it takes” to stop the boats is another. Millions hope and pray that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran will be spared. Millions hope and pray that refugees will be accorded true sanctuary, as is their right. We should all hope (and the religious should pray) that our political leaders will banish the crude belief that the ‘ends justify the means’ including the denial of mercy and hope. If I am sure of anything, it is that the world needs more mercy and more hope – not less.

Image: AACP