The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


Carnival of capital punishment      

The posters were the giveaway.  Professionally produced with near perfect English, some almost works of art, showing Tony Abbott sprouting horns above the caption: ‘Go to hell Abbott with your druggies’.
These were no slogans scribbled on torn cardboard by outraged citizens spontaneously reacting to real slights.  This was the Indonesian standard rent-a-mob shouting outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in late February, probably for a feed and a Rp 50,000 [AUD 5] note.
Who was behind this choreographed display? ‘Dark forces’ is the usual Indonesian response, meaning anyone from a political party, the army, and the police through to an individual with a gripe and the cash.  Some protestors claimed to be Pemuda Muhammadiyah, young members of the second largest Islamic organisation in the nation.
Despite this faux anger there’s no doubt that Australia is genuinely on the nose as the execution of the Bali Nine masterminds Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran swirls closer and the comments from Australia get shriller.
Tony Abbott linking the 2004 tsunami aid with a plea for mercy was so counterproductive and stupid it begs the question: Who is advising the PM on handling relations with Indonesia?
If Jakarta diplomats then they need to squeeze out of their fortress, ride busses, wander markets and mingle with the crowds to hear the public voice.  If it’s Foreign Affairs and Trade staffers they should be buttonholing academics who know Indonesia and are almost in despair at the way everything is turning to custard.
All this could have been foreseen and contingency plans prepared.  Ideally we should have been advancing abolition of the death penalty world-wide long before two of our citizens shuffled to the head of the queue in the nation next door.
Australia is not the only one at fault.
Indonesia has turned the upcoming executions into a circus of nationalism, the chance to bore it up the West and show who’s really in charge.  The ‘go to hell’ slogan is significant because it was used by first President Soekarno in the 1950s when he nationalised Western companies and ordered expats out of the country.
Despite Indonesia declaring independence 70 years ago this August the ghost of colonialism lingers, an insecurity not encountered in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.
The police are also keen to party.  They’ve staged a ghoulish public dress rehearsal in Bali demonstrating how the condemned men will be dragged away to their deaths on the prison island of Nusakambangan.
Pictures of hungry coffins and animated enactments of the execution have fed the media.  It’s not quite the excesses of the French Revolution – but it’s certainly getting close.
What’s overlooked in the glee at having a deaf-to-reason president who seems to care nothing about international concerns is the needless damage being inflicted on a nation long seen as chaotic and corrupt.  Now it’s being painted cruel.
And not just to the condemned.
Politicians pontificating in the capital about deterrents don’t get to labour in the killing fields.  No blood on their boots.  No sleepwalking like Lady Macbeth as the nightmares play, rewind, replay.
That’s the fate of the wong kecil, the little people who get to do the State’s dirty work.   Pity these unwilling actors in the Jakarta-produced horror show, and think how it’s going to scar their lives.
Let’s start at the end.
In Indonesian executions ambulances collect the corpses, not hearses.  Paramedics are used to accidents and trauma.  Their job is to rush the ill and injured to hospital.  They’ve been trained to save lives.
Not this time.
Instead they’ll load bodies into coffins.  Maybe they’ll first unpin the target aprons to be washed, ironed and reused, because butchering is expensive. The entry mark for a 5.56 mm bullet is little more than the diameter of a ballpoint pen, but the exit wound is fist sized and gaping.
So the back of the victims’ shirts will be ripped and splattered with blood, bone splinters and slices of pink flesh, the front soaked in a frothy mix of gore, tears and vomit, the pants filled with urine and excreta for every orifice  opens up in the death throes. 
The stench a mix of warm blood, faeces and upchuck laced with cordite.
If the marksmen have blinked back a tear when squeezing triggers – for only unhinged monsters can kill another defenceless human in cold blood without a ripple of revulsion – then an officer will have fired a final shot into the temple.
Hunters know that killing wounded animals this way bursts the brain and blows out the eyeballs on stalks like mushrooms.  In a flash facial features become unrecognizable.
This is what the nurses will see as they lift the limp bodies.  However ghastly the accidents they’ll attend in years ahead, the execution ground scene will stay bright, every line sharp, every color clear.
All other events are misadventures, acts of God.  This one is deliberate.  An inhuman act of man.
But we’re jumping ahead.  Before the medics move a doctor has to pronounce death. Earlier he’d located the men’s still beating hearts with his stethoscope, a procedure we know well.
Is there any communication between professional and patient?  Does he comfort by repeating the universal Doctor’s Lie - ‘this won’t hurt’ while ensuring the bull’s-eye is correctly placed? 
Or does he, like the Singapore hangman Darsan Singh, whisper that they’re going to a better place?
Doctors graduate with the Hippocratic Oath.  The structure varies but the heart of the matter lies in three simple words: Do No Harm.
Did the execution doctor swear so?  If he uttered those sacred words will his conscience turn cancerous and gnaw away his insides to an early grave?
In 2008 Catholic priest Charlie Burrows witnessed the execution in Indonesia of two Nigerian drug traffickers. Later he told the Constitutional Court that the men were “moaning again and again for seven minutes” after being shot. He’s likely to be present. praying when Chan and Sukumaran die.
Will the gunmen light up a smoke and stroll across to view their handiwork?  Unless they’ve served in West Papua the only objects in their sights till now have been cardboard cutouts shaped like a charging armed brute.
Now they’ve shot unthreatening prisoners tied to chairs and posts, rocking with terror. Close-ups of what an assault rifle can do will sear their souls.
A step back from the hands-on procedures of judicial murder are the prison guards.  Some have got to know the condemned men well.  They’ve looked into their eyes, they’ve exchanged banter, and they’ve recognized fellow humans who made mistakes.  Let he who hasn’t fire the first shot.
Do they not weep?  For the condemned, themselves and their country, knowing all will be contaminated by this evil event.
Then the weaponry experts calculating the trajectory of death.  They signed up for a career in military engineering, not a role in an abattoir.  If they’ve chosen the site carefully the sand or soil should be sufficiently friable to soak up the blood.
Organizing a killing is like planning a wedding – making sure nothing can go wrong in the Unhappiest Day of Our Lives.  This is the job of the lawyers and administrators who pledged to serve the community.
Participating in a project to kill wasn’t on their job description. When they lie with their wives in the joy of bringing new life into the world, will they falter because they’ve been cursed by helping end another?
How do all these brutalized people, the unwitting mechanics of murder following Jakarta’s orders, feel about capital punishment?  In other countries they’d sue the State for exposure to such corrosive horrors.
At the head of this long line of victims stands President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, leader of the world’s third largest democracy, once keen to make it the world’s greatest, elected just last year on a wave of hope for change.
 He could be an international statesman, a champion of human rights praised for his compassion and courage by eradicating capital punishment and accepting the wisdom of the 16th President of the United States.
For when he was about Jokowi’s age Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Washington where he said: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice”.

 First published in On Line Opinion 3 March 2015.  For comments see:

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