I had a lot of mixed feelings this morning after hearing of the executions in Indonesia of convicted drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran overnight. For readers outside Australia and not familiar with the case, they were sentenced to death in 2006 by an Indonesian court after being found guilty of attempting to smuggle more than eight kilograms of heroin to Australia via Bali. Their arrest in Bali came after a tip-off by an Australian lawyer to the Australian Federal Police was relayed to Indonesian authorities. The court found Andrew and Myuran to be the ringleaders of the group often described in the Australian press as "The Bali Nine". Their case had received a great deal of coverage during their trail and leading up to their impending executions, with many pleas for clemency being made on the basis that they appeared to have rehabilitated and been model inmates during nearly 10 years on death row.
I didn't know Andrew or Myuran; my only real association with them is via the media, and the fact that I grew up in the same city they did. Nevertheless I do feel a lot of conflicting emotions about what they did and their resulting execution; and since the healthiest way to deal with emotions is to express them, here they are:
Mostly, I feel a great sadness for their friends, family and loved ones left behind. It's tragic to have anyone you love die, but for that death to be deliberate at the hands of a foreign authority figure beyond your control, must be particularly devastating. I imagine that the fact that they contributed heavily to their own deaths by doing something as mind-bogglingly stupid as trafficking drugs through a country with a hard-line reputation for using the death penalty against drug traffickers in search of a quick buck, must make their grief even more complicated.
I feel angry that the Indonesian authorities and president didn't pay sufficient heed to appeals for clemency to stop the executions taking place. I signed the MercyCampaign.org petition because I want to live in a world where people aren't executed, even for doing things that are injurious to others. I don't like it when people don't appear to listen to what I have to say, so I feel angry at my voice being ignored. My anger is a response to deeper feelings of powerlessness in the face of a foreign legal and political system that acts in ways I don't like, and over which I seem to have little or no influence.
This raises the question: “How do I stop people doing things that I don't like?” More specifically in this case, it's: “How do I stop the Indonesian justice system executing people who break it's laws?” It's the same issue they're facing that caused those laws to be enacted in the first place when the Indonesian government asked itself the question: “How do we stop people bringing drugs we don't want into our country?” So I can also feel some empathy for the Indonesian authorities, since we're both facing a situation of potential powerlessness. Having caught people doing the very thing they didn't want them to do, it's understandable that they wanted to exercise what power they do have, and enforce the penalty they considered appropriate.
I feel ambivalent about the claims that the death penalty doesn't act as a deterrent. If true, that would mean that Andrew and Myuran's deaths either really were pointless, or merely prevented them from ever doing it again. I used to be a member of Amnesty International and am not in favor of the death penalty, since I believe people can be rehabilitated under the right circumstances. But I'm not totally convinced that high-profile cases like this doesn't deter others. The idea of being in front of a firing squad scares the crap out of me, so it would certainly deter me if I was thinking of trafficking drugs; but then, I have other good reasons that I don't traffic drugs so I guess I'm not really the target audience for the message they're trying to send. Perhaps drug traffickers really are naïve enough to think that they won't get caught, just don't think it through properly, or have a much higher risk tolerance threshold than I do.
I feel frightened about the idea of ever traveling through Indonesia; not because I would ever traffic drugs, but because I know that no human system of justice is ever perfect, and I tend to feel and act guilty whenever there's an authority figure around me even though I've done nothing wrong. That's just old programming from the past rearing its ugly head, but knowing that a mistaken assumption on the part of a lowly paid Indonesian immigration, police or court official could cost me my life is scary.
I also feel relieved that the drugs in question were intercepted on-route and never made it to Australia. I believe that most illegal drug use, particularly in the case of highly addictive drugs like heroin, is a cover for emotional pain. We live in a world where most of us aren't taught how our emotions work, and many of us just don't know how to deal with emotional pain in a constructive way. Instead, we avoid, suppress, internalize, project and self-medicate the pain away. Hard drugs are the tip of the iceberg, and I feel angry when people like Andrew and Myuran attempt to cash in on other people's pain by trafficking drugs that are likely to kill some of these people through overdoses.
Ideally I'd like to live in a society where everyone was free to do whatever they wanted, provided it had no negative impact on other people in the process. In this imaginary ideal world, drug supply and use could be legal and nobody would be executed simply for supplying the drugs that people desire.
But it's an unrealistic scenario because everything we do has an impact on other people, for better or for worse. Sometimes both. A person self-destructing through drug use is going to impact on other people, like their family, friends and community. I can't force someone who uses hard drugs to deal with their inner emotional pain instead, and I know from personal experience that the journey of dealing with emotional pain so can be long and difficult; so it's not surprising that many people take the easy option of medicating the pain away. But if we want to stop people in pain self-destructing because we care about them and the impact they have on other people, one option is to restrict access to the drugs, which is why Indonesia takes such a hard stance.
I feel anxious about the hypocrisy of getting on a self-righteous high horse and criticizing Indonesia for doing what their law said they were going to do anyway. I bet they don't like being told how to run their legal system any more than I like my voice being ignored when asking them to run it in a way that would suit me better.
I'm not even totally sure that it would better suit me; I'd be willing to bet that many death row inmates could pull out remarkable stories of rehabilitation in the face of the threat of ultimate punishment. I feel suspicious about the stories the Australian media have been telling of redemption; I want to believe, and I want to think that past behavior doesn't have to dictate the future. But I also know that rates of criminal recidivism is much higher than the crime rate for the general population, and I feel angry that a minority of people consume so many legal and societal resources at other people's expense, while the victims of crime have to pick up the pieces largely on their own.
Perhaps Andrew and Myuran really did mature emotionally during their ten years on death row, in which case I feel sad for the loss of what they could have contributed had they grown up before choosing to traffic drugs. Knowing that your premature death was coming must be quite a jolt to the system. When I think of the prospect of living with a death sentence hanging over your head, I feel shivers running down my spine. It must be unbelievably stressful, and I feel for anyone in that situation.
However, I'm not in that situation and probably never will be. The truth is that, tragic as Andrew and Myuran's story is, I don't really relate to their plight and find it a little difficult to empathize with their mostly self created suffering. If they were innocent victims of a legal error or deliberate framing, I'd probably feel differently. I don't know enough to say what led them to make such a bad choice in the first place, but I do know that focusing on other people's problems can easily become a distraction from dealing with our own. This is one reason we flock to the news, which is almost always negative and about other people. Arguing that the system should be different can be an avoidance mechanism so we never really deal with our own issues. Complaining that the rule-makers don't treat you the way you want when you break their rules can be a futile exercise. I believe a better way forward is to look within, deal with our own pain, and learn to work the system to our own advantage. If Andrew and Myuran had taken this path, they wouldn't have wanted to carrying drugs through Bali in the first place.
While I feel sad for everyone involved, the lesson I take away is that you can either make a positive contribution to the world, or a negative one; and there can be pretty extreme consequences either way. Making a positive contribution may require us to deal with the emotionally immature part of us that wants a quick fix; be it by a drug hit, a quick buck at someone else's expense, or a brief power trip in taking the life of someone who did something you don't like.