Killing people is wrong. That seems to me to be a simple truth. We can have long and detailed ethical discussions about circumstances in which killing someone may be the lesser of two evils, if someone kills in self-defence or defence of others, but it remains an evil. Killing people is never a good thing to do.
This is one of the reasons I feel so uncomfortable about the way in which Australia commemorates ANZAC Day. On that ‘sacred day’ there is a great deal of discussion of mateship and sacrifice and of the courage and commitment shown by soldiers who ‘lay down their lives’. But on ANZAC Day there is little discussion of the fact that soldiers who go to war aren’t merely asked to die. They are asked to kill. Their country asks them to do the most inhuman thing possible, to take the life of another human being. How can we ever justify asking that of soldiers? Again, it can only ever be as the lesser of two evils. This is the basis of Just War Theory; not that war is ever a good thing, but sometimes the other options are worse. Most people, I believe, agree that this was true in World War Two, when the other option was allowing Nazi Germany to continue on its way. Many people agree that this was not true of World War One, including the invasion of Gallipoli that is commemorated on ANZAC Day.
Then, of course, there is the reason I am writing today. The death penalty. State-sanctioned killing of people found guilty of a crime to show our absolute abhorrence of what they have done. Various justifications are given. Deterrence is perhaps the most popular. Does killing people for committing crimes deter other people from committing those same crimes? We can’t answer that definitively, but what evidence there is would suggest not. We could say crudely that at least it prevents the person executed from committing that crime again, which is why there have been calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty as a response to repeat offender rapists. But is killing someone the only way of making sure they never commit that crime again?
Killing people is wrong. It can only ever occur as the lesser of two evils. The death penalty is no exception. The fact that it is the state that is doing the killing does not make a difference.
In the early hours of this morning Indonesia killed eight people, including the two Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. (One of the other people killed was Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte, who apparently had schizophrenia.) Chan and Sukumaran had been imprisoned for ten years and were, by all accounts, remorseful and rehabilitated. What was the greater evil that their death would prevent? It wasn’t the possibility that they would offend again. They were rehabilitated. It wasn’t the future trafficking of drugs to Indonesia or Australia; as I said earlier, studies suggest that the death penalty is not a deterrent. So why were they killed?
Many people have tried to justify Indonesia’s actions on social media today. There are some that defend the death penalty as a deterrent, but most seem to know that is shaky ground. Instead, Australians who are criticising Indonesia today are accused of being racist hypocrites. Racist, because among the other countries that use the death penalty is the United States, and we have not withdrawn our ambassador from there. Hypocrites, because while we say we oppose the death penalty, we only seem to get upset when it is Australians who are facing the firing squad. And hypocrites, because Australia is also quite happily breaking international law in our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. We are as comfortable ignoring the criticism from the United Nations and the international community of our treatment of asylum seekers as Indonesia is comfortable ignoring the criticism from the United Nations and the international community of its use of the death penalty.
So I want to say one thing very clearly. It does not matter if Australia is racist and hypocritical, that still does not justify the judicial murder that is the death penalty.
I also want to say that I agree Australia is a hypocrite. Our treatment of asylum seekers is appalling. China and Iran have both pointed this out to us. When our human rights’ record is being criticised by China and Iran we are in trouble. We must do everything we can to oppose what our government, with the support of the ALP, is currently doing. (Personally I have been doing this through the #LoveMakesAWay campaign.) And of course we should condemn the death penalty wherever and whenever it is used; whether or not Australians are involved; even when the country doing the killing is our great and powerful friend the United States of America. Supporting Amnesty International’s campaign against the death penalty is one way of doing that. Doing everything we can, as individuals and as a country, to encourage the United Nations’ call for a moratorium on the death penalty is another.
But the fact that Australia does not have clean hands does not justify what Indonesia has done today. Killing people is wrong. What happened this morning was appalling, disgusting, a tragedy. There is no justification. May God have mercy on the souls of all those involved.
I don’t want to end this post in anger. So here is a prayer written by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J. You may know of her through the film Dead Man Walking.
You let your rain fall on the just and the unjust.
Expand and deepen our hearts
so that we may love as You love,
even those among us
who have caused the greatest pain by taking life.For there is in our land a great cry for vengeance
as we fill up death rows and kill the killers
in the name of justice, in the name of peace.Jesus, our brother,
you suffered execution at the hands of the state
but you did not let hatred overcome you.
Help us to reach out to victims of violence
so that our enduring love may help them heal.Holy Spirit of God,
You strengthen us in the struggle for justice.
Help us to work tirelessly
for the abolition of state-sanctioned death
and to renew our society in its very heart
so that violence will be no more. Amen.