Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven argues against the death penalty for two Australians due to be executed in Indonesia.
Suddenly, in our neat and ordered world, Death is not a stranger. No longer an invisible, apologetic presence in a hospital room, or lost among the mourners at a dignified funeral.
Now, a noisy thug, stalking the street with armed gunmen. Selecting victims randomly or with vile purpose, and sponsoring tele-events of live slaughter. Martin Place. The Parisian kosher supermarket. Charlie Hebdo.
And with Death comes his snide mate, Regret. If only we had anticipated. If only we could have stopped it. But you cannot bring back the dead.
So when we do have a chance to cheat death, to flaunt mercy in the face of pitilessness, we should grasp it. If there are lives we can snatch from death’s haul, we should: for the sake of those lives, for ourselves, and in moral tribute to those unjustly slain.
Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, the two Australian prisoners on death row in Indonesia, are just such lives. Saving them is an opportunity to spit in the face of sauntering death.
Clearly, they are no Katrina Dawson or Tori Johnson, leading blameless lives. They are men who committed wicked crimes trafficking drugs. But after they are shot to death, their Australian bodies and Australian families will be just as broken as those of our virtuous dead.
Of course, some will say convicted drug runners deserve no mercy. They took the risk and must pay the bloody penalty.
This is not the time to rehearse the standard arguments against capital punishment. Suffice to say when the state kills it is by definition a killer: only the justification varies.
But almost everyone, Australians and Indonesians, Christians, Muslims and atheists — but not ISIS and Al Qa’ida — believes in the notion of mercy. What we look for is some spark to justify it.
Sukumaran and Chan are remarkable cases here. Their last years of imprisonment have changed them. In a world where “reform” so often is an abstract possibility, they have embraced it.
Sukumaran serves his fellow prisoners. He organises painting classes, cultural and performing arts programs and drug rehabilitation initiatives. Chan, who has become deeply religious, follows the same path, assisting with first aid, counselling, sport and fund raising for worthy causes.
Cynics would say, they would wouldn’t they? But when a person genuinely rediscovers their humanity, the reason is secondary. The real question is, can we admit that humanity to ourselves? Or do we have more in common with ISIS than we care to admit, and are prepared to trade in life, if only the cause is “just”?
The other argument to blow these men apart is that they are subject to the laws of Indonesia, and we must respect those laws. Both these things are true, but they do not lead to the desired bloody conclusion.
Under Indonesian law, all prisoners on death row can receive presidential clemency. There is no ban on drug offenders. The law recognises the possibility that any prisoner may be worthy of mercy, most logically on the grounds they genuinely have reformed.
Yet new Indonesian President Joko Widodo has announced there will be no clemency at all for drug traffickers.
His anguish over the effects of drug crime is understandable. But the assertion that the universal legal possibility of clemency will not even be considered for a whole class of prisoners does not uphold the Indonesian legal system. It contradicts it.
At the same time, a dispute between the Indonesian Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court makes it unclear whether prisoners like Sukamaran and Chan have exhausted their right of appeal.
Indonesian law does not require these Australians to die. There is the real alternative of a very, very long time in jail.
But in reality they will die, unless Australia can respectfully but firmly convince President Widodo that there has been enough death, and that mercy in a merciless world now is one of our chief national objectives.
There are two parts to this. The first is all Australians must understand that we are inextricably involved. We were helpless bystanders at Martin place and powerless viewers of Paris. But if we do and say nothing about Sukumaran and Chan, we participate passively in their deaths.
The second is that our government must act accordingly. So far, Tony Abbott has opposed execution, but said the issue cannot affect relations between the two nations. But it will affect relations with our great friend and neighbour. As we now know clearly, nothing is more personal than death, and our Prime Minister must make this crystal clear.