James Hogan. An Unspeakable Wrongness

Apr 29, 2015

And so, it has come to pass. With a dreadful inevitability, Indonesian Law has taken its course, and the sentences passed so long ago on Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran have been carried into execution. Some will wonder at our capacity to mourn these men and their fellows when we struggle to find compassion for other, more ‘deserving’ victims.  Others will take an even harder line, noting with approval the completion of a ‘fine evening’s work’, a message sent regardless of the tariff.   Yet if recent months have shown us anything, it is the  growing recognition in our community that Death has had its day, and that the time has come to take a stand for life, whatever the chances of success.

How else can one explain the extraordinary efforts of Reprieve and the Mercy Campaign, of the Foreign Minister and her shadow, of parliamentarians from the Prime Minister down, of the Christian and Islamic leaders of Sydney? How about the tens of thousands of ordinary Australians who have attended vigils and signed petitions? Or the famous actor, tweeting quietly and with simple courtesy to the President, using whatever influence he could muster to try to make a difference?

There have been stumbles, well-meaning but ham-fisted interventions from private citizens and holders of the highest office, words almost instantly regretted and far, far better left unsaid. These have been the exception: the rule has been cautious and respectful, allowing every opportunity for reflection and dialogue, cognizant of our own vulnerabilities – understanding, perhaps, that some games can be played only by a Great Power.

Yet no matter how persuasive the argument, how profound the transformation in the inmate, how careful the observance of protocol, it all still ended in tragedy.

Tragedy comes in many forms, but here it arises with surety from the act itself – the slow, methodical and deliberate taking of a healthy life, removing all promise, all hope, any skerrick of doubt that might remain about a future. Too often we focus on worthiness in the inmate instead of its absence in a system that can take a life with such calmness and professionalism.  Too often we seem concerned with method, with structure and technicalities: the feigned concern for suffering, the relative merits of one mechanism over another, the comical focus on the inmate’s dignity during his final hours.

Such dignity as he is able to retain comes only from within, bound up with life and humanity, taken only at the last. Dignity might be stifled by procedure, but dignity isn’t in its gift. More than three quarters of a century have passed since George Orwell wrote of the scene in a Burmese prison yard as his party escorted a Hindu man to the gallows. The prose is clipped, almost official, telling of a moustache beyond proportion, an unexpected visitor, and a bumbling jailer, so inept that he could fail to organise a hanging on time. And then, the condemned man, firmly restrained by his escort, pushes momentarily against their grasp to avoid a puddle of water:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to
destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to
avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of
cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying; he
was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working
– bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues
forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be
growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air
with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the
grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned
even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together,
seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two
minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one
world less. 

Death, you see, is different. The  issue lies not in the machinery, the crimes of the prisoner, nor even in the repugnant camouflage adopted by the authorities to distance themselves from the act  – the fiction of a blank cartridge, the executioner’s mask, the lethal injection machine that uses a random number generator to choose between two button-pushing executioners  (no, I’m not kidding). The issue lies only in the pointless termination of a life, a life that cannot be held to be of lesser value than our own without that too being diminished, and one day disappearing altogether from view.

That is why we must continue to speak up, that is why we must petition and appeal when a rational mind says the actions are futile or some say that the inmate doesn’t deserve to be saved. That is why we must celebrate those who have fought so long and hard in what has become a losing battle. Each time we sit back, each time we remain silent, the tide of human dignity ebbs subtly further from the shore, and the value of our lives ebbs with it.


James M. Hogan is a Brisbane academic. These are his own views.  In an earlier life he was heavily involved in anti – death penalty work with Amnesty, and he has written many (unsuccessful) appeals for clemency.

[Orwell’s famous essay, should you wish to link to it, may be found here:

http://www.george-orwell.org/A_Hanging/0.html  ]


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