Cruel And Unnecessary. Come Again Mr Abbott?

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‘From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights’. – Michel Foucault

It’s rare that the lives of the executed enter into our own, as did those of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Within a news cycle that daily glances tragedy and atrocity, only to suspend it in furtive acknowledgement, we were largely indifferent to the fate of these young men until the drama of their deaths became imminent, poised on the precipice of journalistic suspense.

In 2013 Amnesty International recorded 778 executions around the world with 23,392 people enduring the protracted torment of death row. The list of worst offenders will hardly surprise – China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, USA (with nearly half in Texas) and Somalia. There was a 30 per cent rise in executions that year in Iraq, despite the deliverance of Iraq from the summary and arbitrary executions carried out under Saddam Hussein.

2013 also marked the year Indonesia returned to the death penalty after a four-year hiatus. Chan and Sukumaran were undoubtedly victims of a Machiavellian AFP, a corrupt and incomplete judicial process, and a defensive sovereignty after the insult of Australian security surveillance and infringements of waters as Australian governments have negotiated ‘offshore processing’.

But what brought Chan and Sukumaran into our living rooms was their docility. They were exemplary prisoners, “fully rehabilitated” said Abbott. They were “testament to the Indonesian penal system” according to a number of our parliamentarians. In a joint statement on their deaths, Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek noted, “Indonesia has not just robbed two young men of their lives but robbed itself of two examples of the strengths of its justice system.”

Presented to the public were two young men who showed every sign of remorse, and who confirmed our faith that punishment within the penal system can rehabilitate. Had they been allowed to live we could at least anticipate in their bleak future their loss of will compensated by art and faith.

Chan and Sukumaran were exemplary prisoners, and thereby poster boys for the confidence we invest in disciplinary regimes. They not only evinced every sign of reform, they set an example – perhaps we like to think as only Australians could – to their Indonesian fellow prisoners, giving comfort, teaching art, leading prayer.

By taking their lives, Widodo laid bare the original purpose of incarceration – punishment, and through its public aura (its actual display would be too ‘ghastly’) deterrence.

In taking their lives Widodo also deprived us of the assurance of penal justice, that modern prisons are houses of reform, and the bodies within them emit the signs of restorative order. The social disorder they threatened as free agents is not merely contained but rehabilitated. Prisons, we like to think, can be places of contrition and redemption, a kind of laundry workshop for soul hygiene.

So invested are we in the idea of reformatory institutions and the effectiveness of their disciplinary procedures, we pretend we don’t know that prisons are in fact factories for crime. They neither prevent it nor contain it, but centralize its operatives as alienated, impoverished and thereby even more dependent on forms of illegality that can overcome the stigma of the ex-con.

We see this unfold at galloping velocity in the incarceration of young Aboriginal men – once incarcerated inmates tend to reoffend, a high proportion of convicts are former inmates. Total institutions are prone to abuses of power, so prisons tend to foment alienation from the law, such that justice itself appears as arbitrary and cruel to the people it most hopes to subject to its will and convince of its beneficence.

We’ve known that prisons produce delinquency and are ineffectual in deterring crime for 150 years. What prisons do, however, is mark out, typecast and display the delinquent and his crimes as social outcast. We imagine we can thereby remove the threat of social harm, that the potential for harm can be located in specific bodies which we can identify and remove from our midst.

While the social pact reasonably depends on the protection of citizens from the likes of Dupas, Milak and Adrian Bayley, the reform of Chan and Sukumaran was more about the categorizing of drug dealing as crime than any tendency to viciousness in either of them. They didn’t turn into nice guys in prison, they no doubt already were nice guys who did something especially stupid and venal, and it was then in their interests to cultivate in themselves remorse, a sense of community and the responsibility that goes with it, even leadership and a sense of beauty.

At the moment Chan and Sukumaran were tied to stakes our belief in a humanized penal system was trampled. Clearly a political tactic by Widodo, their murders made legible the power of the sovereign state as trumping universal human rights. Their bodies were made to express, along with retribution for social harm, offence at Australian hubris, which Abbott managed to fuel with his tin-eared comments on aid.

These executions lay bare that still at work within modern jurisprudence are pre-enlightenment impulses of vengeance, deprivation and the macabre spectacle of punishment as a means of deterrence. It’s too easy to dismiss this as the inhumanity of a less ‘developed’ nation, for we deploy the same principles in the mandatory detention of refugees – only they have committed no crime and seeking asylum cannot be subject to rehabilitation. 

Refugees are not delinquents; the social disorder they threaten is nothing other than a perceived tide of non-assimilable racial difference that will alter an imagined national character. Most have already been subject to a worse penalty than constraint, the threat of death.

The potential guilt of the displaced, around the world, is in the millions. Their detainment co-opts their very bodies as living lessons to deter with a more ‘unnecessary and cruel’ fate than political oppression, threat to life, sometimes torture. Abbott is attempting to trump torture with indefinite detention.

Widodo’s arsenal of deterrence is without question unnecessary and cruel. Whenever a citizenry has invested the power of life and death in the state it has proved disastrous. But our government and those previous have deployed their own arsenal of deterrence – detention, to inflict the torment of limbo and unknown fate.

It’s a kind of ransom of their persons, holding their bodies as security against that which cannot be controlled, the tide of people fleeing mostly human rights abuses, conflict and increasingly climate injustice, a projected 200 million.

Though the deprivation of life is of a different order of punishment, the execution of these men and the indefinite detention of refugees have a common rationale and they both turn away from the reform rationale of incarceration.

Reform and rehabilitation are eschewed in favor of punishment and the display, rather than the elimination, of certain social acts as crimes – selling certain substances and seeking asylum become defined as social harms.

Perhaps Abbott could himself find a moral lesson in these young lives taken summarily from their broken hearted families. Since reform clearly isn’t the aim of indefinite detention, this regressive turn to ‘unnecessary and cruel’ punishment will not stop the traffic in humans anymore than it has stopped the traffic in drugs.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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