When I was sixteen and just beginning my school certificate, Australia hung Ronald Ryan. Australia’s longest serving Premier, Henry Bolte of Victoria was facing re-election. The case against Ryan was weak by any measure and yet Bolte refused clemency.
I was old enough to take an interest in this case. A prison guard had been shot and killed. Although Ryan carried a rifle at the time of his escape, there was never any evidence that he’d fired a shot. There was no spent cartridge found. There was strong evidence to suggest that another prison guard fired a shot, but his rifle was never examined. In due course the guard, who was alleged to have taken a shot, took his own life.
Churches, journalists and academics were all outraged that the State should take a life especially when the case against the man was so weak. The Premier was a shrewd politician who judged the mood of the public to be insecure in the context of all the changes that the 1960’s created. He knew an irrational fear created a thirst for strong leadership that would assert its authority against all who wanted to abolish the death penalty. Bolte was re-elected with an increased majority.
A sheltered childhood was eroded somewhat as I reluctantly realised that an elected official would find a man’s death useful for his personal and political ambitions.
Two young Australians are about to lose their lives at the hand of the Indonesian government! An elected official is shrewdly reading the mood of his people and resisting calls for clemency. Just like Bolte, I believe the Indonesian President is reading the mood of his people accurately.
The Indonesians have demonstrated a culture that has careful regard for the rule of law. They did prove the guilt, beyond doubt of Andrew and Myuran. Now they are enforcing the law.
The public mood for “strong leadership” in any culture should cause us concern. In an atmosphere of fear or in a history where resentment has been allowed to fester, the public may be in a mood to, “make someone pay”, little realising that it is all of us who pay, when leaders exercise such power over easy targets. We all pay when the value of humanity is cheapened to the extent that a politician should exercise the power of life and death. No one is better off for the death of Ronald Ryan. No one will benefit from the death of Andrew Chan or Myuran Sukumaran. All of us are depleted.
We ought not be judgmental about Indonesia. We should know that if a popular vote was called for pedophiles in this country to receive the the death penalty, then it would be accepted in a heartbeat by the general public here, who like the public of Indonesia, “want someone to pay”. We ought not boycott holidays in Bali unless we are likewise prepared to boycott travel to the USA where few Governors choose compassion when a poor person’s time on death row comes to an end.
Perhaps we should declare a season of sadness. Perhaps it will give us time to discover the truth that when one of us is depleted, we’re all depleted. Perhaps our season of sadness will reveal that when life is taken too soon for any one of us, all of us die a little.