Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran will face an Indonesian firing squad after losing their final appeals against the death sentence. Three other Australians are imprisoned overseas and facing death for trafficking offences. In the four decades since we abolished the death penalty in Australia, some serious appeals have been made on behalf of overseas prisoners, and some have received mere lip service. The AFP’s Mick Keelty has successfully stepped in to support the appeal of Scott Rush, another member of the Bali nine. How are we making the decision of who gets to live and who deserves to die? Why has there been so little response to another state sanctioned killing of an Australian? How do we learn to turn a blind eye?
When asked recently why she didn’t denounce the final condemnation of Andrew Chan to a death by firing squad, Julia Gillard replied, "I don’t want to get into commentary about the judicial system of other countries because it’s not appropriate". How has the killing of another human being become a question of appropriateness rather than principle? Our current government’s response to those facing the death penalty overseas is to let others do our bidding. We then pretend that we are both powerless and without agency in the decision to kill these young men, and in the choice of who we will allow to die. Where does this ability to seal someone’s fate and simultaneously abdicate responsibility come from?
We first learn that someone has to be chosen for violence in our homes.
For the thousands of us who grew up with violent parents, guardians or siblings, the violence was inevitable and inescapable. It was a question only of who would be hurt. If it wasn’t us, it would be someone else. But stopping the violence altogether was never within our control as children. When we are examining our responses to the application of the death penalty and the choices made about who will die and who will be granted clemency, our own histories of violence may well be at the root of our responses.
Who doesn’t remember the relief when it was someone else’s turn to be in trouble? We learn early that punishment is going to come and the only escape is to dob someone else in. In the case of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, their lack of serious support in Australia was a passive form of human sacrifice that is a close cousin to family violence.
In the process of justifying our violence, there is always an element of scapegoating. We defend our choice of who to punish by using any available label that will justify our aggression. She provoked the attack, he was the ringleader, he should have known better, that’s the way things are done around here, let this be a lesson to others. This becomes much easier when the person targeted is a member of a marginalised, feared or misunderstood group. In this case, people who were desperate enough to risk their lives trafficking heroin. Andrew Chan ticked two of the traditional scapegoat boxes, the addict and the ringleader. This made him particularly easy to sacrifice.
Those on death row and those in prisons everywhere come predominantly from significant disadvantage, both social and personal. Indigenous men and women, those with active addictions and those with a history of abuse, neglect and mental illness are overrepresented (pdf). For those whose intention is to expel the other, those who are already marginalised are an easy target. Miranda Devine recently asked us to care less about the fate of the Bali nine, in order to save Bali from becoming a "lawless honyepot" like Thailand. We want to believe that the isolation of those in prison has nothing to do with us and that their removal leaves our world a better place.
It’s not just easier to disregard those who are already marginalised; it can also be tempting, particularly when we have been in a state of shock or distress, to support leaders like Gillard, who embody the status quo. Just think back to the conservative responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and those writers and commentators who became uncomfortable with any questioning of the reporting of the event. How did we shift so easily from compassion to contempt?
Terror management theory, derived from the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, holds that we are more likely to behave punitively when our own sense of mortality has been awakened. In this country the offences of the Bali nine appear relatively minor, and this only increases our fear of our own mortality when we are faced with how easily and for how little they will lose their lives and liberty. Making a choice about whose stay of execution to support provides us with the illusion that we can escape our own mortality. In a strange way, we accepted that someone had to die, because that someone wasn’t us and wasn’t someone we felt was remotely like us. Our selective protection allowed us to cheat death.
This is what we do following every brush we have with death. We silently add up the controllable factors in the situation and we imagine that we have learned enough to avoid the fate of the one who died. We use this logic when we talk to children as well. I remember my daughter going through the death-obsessed years between three and five, and the ways I tried to explain the deaths of the animals whose bodies she saw. Things like "he didn’t understand about the road", "she was old" or "she wasn’t very well taken care of". Of course the implications of all of these statements is that if you take care to avoid these things, you won’t ever have to die.
We have many myths that protect us from our fear of death, and one of the myths hidden in our selective support for some members of the Bali nine is that it makes sense for bad things to happen to bad people. Some people deserve death more than others. Mick Keelty and others used the idea that some people deserve to die more than others when they made appeals against the death sentences of Australians overseas.
As if one person deserves death more than another. The differing fates of the members of the Bali nine are not simply about law enforcement, punishment or retribution. It is not simply about our unwillingness to offend a neighbouring nation by our condemnation of their legal processes. It is also about our childish ideas about death and violence.
Many of us will never witness a death, and some of us will never see a dead body in our lifetimes. We won’t witness the executions of these men. Most of us have great difficulty holding our own death as a reality. Like children, we can’t quite believe that death will happen to us. We may have allowed the reality of the sacrifice of the lives of these young men to fly under the radar because not only have we been complicit in their deaths, we have been blinded by the fear of our own mortality and by our need to believe that death is both selective and fair. If we could leave this illusion behind, we might be able to advocate on behalf of all those who face state sanctioned killing.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column that looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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