And The Killing Goes On


The Bali bombers have been executed by the Indonesian authorities. They were taken out before dawn, tied to stakes and shot. Members of the Bali Nine face the prospect of dying the same way.

The Australian public, and the Australian Government, are equivocal in their reactions. Many Australians apparently supported the idea of executing the Bali bombers: some exulted in news of their death. Most Australians are opposed to the execution of members of the Bali Nine.

In the lead up to the last election, now-Attorney General Robert McLelland was clear in his condemnation of the death sentence. He said:

"In Government we will … take the lead on encouraging the establishment of a regional coalition against the death penalty. This will demonstrate that Australia is serious about universal abolition.

"We will take two key steps: Firstly, we will be consistent in public comments regarding capital punishment.

"For example, Mr Howard was supportive of the executions of the perpetrators of the Bali bombings, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. While at the same time he continued to state that Australia opposed capital punishment.

"This contradiction came increasingly into focus when Indonesian terrorist Amrozi was condemned to capital punishment at the same time as Van Nguyen in Singapore.

"Labor believes that supporting executions — even by a nation state — gives justification to all kinds of fanatical lunatics to take the lives of others in pursuit of their own warped ideologies. That is why, at the highest levels, Australia’s public comments about the death penalty must be consistent with policy. This is especially the case if we are going to tactfully and successfully drive a regional abolitionist movement.

"Secondly, Labor in Government will initiate a regional coalition against the death penalty by drawing abolitionist states together to look for effective ways to encourage other regional states towards abolition."

For these comments, McLelland was roundly rebuked by Kevin Rudd. Coming as they did so close to the fifth anniversary of the Bali bombings, his comments might fairly have been criticised as tactless. But that was not the sting of Rudd’s rebuke: the real point was that these people should die because they had killed Australians. McLelland’s comments were utterly principled; Rudd’s, unfortunately, were not.

At the same time, of course, members of the Bali Nine were also facing the prospect of execution in Indonesia. A majority of the Australian public is strongly opposed to their execution. It was equally opposed to the execution of Van Nguyen in Singapore in December 2005.

Nevertheless, at the time of Nguyen’s execution, the Australian public generally supported the idea of executing Saddam Hussein. How can these different attitudes co-exist in the same community?

There are some key arguments against capital punishment.

First, capital punishment does not prevent or deter crime. That is the fact of it. It is not surprising: most murders are acts of impulse or passion. Most murders are not committed after calm reflection. Terrorists are unlikely to be deterred by the prospect of capital punishment — if they do not kill themselves in the course of their attack, they will likely be willing martyrs to the State. Capital punishment does not prevent crimes: countries which have abolished capital punishment have experienced no increase in the crime rate.

Second, those who turn to the Bible for justification must reach back to the Old Testament: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". But as Mahatma Ghandi said: Take an eye for an eye and soon we are all blind.

In Iran, cranes are used to hang the corpses of executed prisoners for all the citizens to see. Does this improve or diminish the people involved in this act? For some offences, capital punishment of women is inflicted by stoning. It is a truly dreadful way to die. The victim, fully bound from head to foot in white bandages, is buried waist deep in the earth. Immobilised this way, she is pelted with rocks the size of fists. Because she cannot see the rocks coming, she cannot duck in anticipation, but she flinches in response to every hit. The bandages are soon flushed with blood and gradually the body sags and collapses. It is then dragged away.

Any society that tolerates State executions is damaged by them.

Third, and most important: capital punishment is the cold-blooded killing of a person by the power of the State. Let us not flinch from this: after investigation, trial and appeals, after all passion is spent, the State coldly and deliberately snuffs out a human life.

Albert Camus captured this point in 1957:

"An execution is not simply death. It is just as different from the privation of life as a concentration camp is from prison. It adds to death a rule, a public premeditation known to the future victim, an organisation which is itself a source of moral suffering more terrible than death. Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated can be compared."

All of these arguments rest on the bedrock of moral principle: Thou shall not kill. It is one of the most basic moral lessons and the most universal. Not surprising perhaps, given the individual self-interest we all have in it being a general rule. Ironically, proponents of capital punishment turn to the Sixth Commandment to justify the execution of murderers. But capital punishment breaks this rule just as surely as murder does.

Here, supporters of capital punishment will object that there are exceptions to the rule, and there are: killing in time of war, and killing in self-defence are both seen as exceptions. They argue that capital punishment is a form of self-defence; it is the way society defends itself against those who violate its most important rules. But even this argument for capital punishment breaks down.

Killing in war and killing in self-defence both have limits. A soldier cannot deliberately kill civilians, or prisoners, because they are not a threat to his life or to the life of his country. Self-defence has to be a reasonably proportionate response to the attack. A person who kills an intruder in the course of warding off a deadly attack will successfully argue self-defence. It will be quite different if he overpowers his attacker, ties him up, and a few days later coldly strangles him to death. That is not self-defence, it is murder.

So it is with capital punishment. A convicted criminal may need to be punished to set an example to the rest of society; he may need to be locked away to protect society from the risk he presents. Killing him in cold blood offers no more protection than locking him up; it is just a premeditated killing, animated by a base desire for vengeance.

As a society we seem to have accepted that capital punishment is calculated murder by the State; that the State should set an example in showing respect for the sanctity of life; that capital punishment exposes the darkest corner of our soul.

If those are our principles, we should be consistent in them: capital punishment in Indonesia or Singapore or Guantanamo is as bad as capital punishment here; Saddam Hussein was a human life just as Van Nguyen was a human life; Amrozi was a human life just as Scott Rush is a human life. Respect for human life means respect for all human life.

State executions are not only terrible, they are shameful. And the State seems to recognise this fact. Members of the firing squads in Indonesia are assessed psychiatrically, in advance, because of the harm they might suffer by their involvement in the killing of a defenceless person. Not all members of the firing squad had a live round in their rifle — each can comfort himself that he was not the person who killed the prisoners. But each must face his wife and children with a shadow on his conscience.

Because State executions are shameful, they are carried out in private, away from the public gaze — at least that is the case in "civilised" countries. "Civilised" countries think it is indecent to allow the general public to witness executions. In that simple fact, they tacitly acknowledge that executions cause harm beyond the death of the prisoner — to watch the cool, calculated killing of a defenceless person, trussed and hooded, takes away part of our humanity.

If governments truly thought that there was nothing shameful about State executions, if they truly believed that capital punishment was an effective deterrent or served some other valid social end, they would televise executions in the hope that the wide populace would watch them and thereby be improved.

But it will not happen. When the Bali bombers were executed by firing squad, the Rudd Government did not take steps to have the event televised so it could be seen in homes across Australia.

This is the Abu Ghraib effect: the photographs from Abu Ghraib shocked the world and drew denials and apologies from the US Government. But what was photographed at Abu Ghraib was, for the most part, much less serious and much less shocking than events that have taken place under US supervision at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and in mysterious CIA camps in the Eastern bloc. The US has officially condoned methods of treatment and interrogation more cruel and more humiliating than we saw in those notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib. Australia is aware of this and goes along with it. Only when the shabby detail is publicly revealed do governments lose their taste for such things.

I suspect that if the execution of the Bali bombers had been screened in homes across Australia, only a tiny percentage of the Australian population would approve. Some would thrill at the cold horror of it, but most would be disgusted. The problem with seeing these things for yourself is that it makes them unbearably real, and few things could shock more than seeing the vast power of the State tie a wretched individual to a stake and shoot him dead.

The Australian public equivocated about killing the Bali bombers, because they do not see them as wretched individuals, or even as human beings; just as symbols of a national tragedy which must be avenged. The Australian Attorney-General saw the matter more clearly, but he is not allowed his opinion.

The people who favoured the execution of the Bali bombers but protest at the execution of the Bali Nine might be embarrassed to explain their position. It is hard to resist the conclusion that their case depends on the idea that Australian lives account for more than foreign lives.

To oppose capital punishment only contingently is to betray the moral foundation of the rule against killing.

If the Australian Government is opposed to capital punishment, it must condemn it in absolute terms, not contingently. If it opposes the death penalty for the Bali Nine, it should have opposed the death penalty for the Bali Bombers. We must speak out against capital punishment in all forms, in all places, unconditionally.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.