The execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan was always a spectacle. It was far divorced from reality for the bulk of us. As time has passed, the raw emotion has begun to make way for reasoned reflection. In truth, there will be many among us that breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, they claim, we can get back to reality. We can stop the effort to sanctify two convicted heroin smugglers. The outpouring of concern, they argue, was never merited.
I was one of those people that was rattled to the core when it all happened. And I'm writing to defend that position. The executions of Myuran, Andrew and the 6 other convicted drug smugglers deserve to matter. Further, it's important that they do.
I've read on social media, people far more compassionate than I, shrug this whole spectacle off. Would we care if they weren't Australian? What about the tragedies of individuals in Nepal? What about Indonesia's state sovereignty and their right to implement law? A woman is killed every 8 days from domestic violence in this country, did you care about that?
These are legitimate questions and they should be addressed.
The issue of Indonesia and their immutable right to carry out the executions is an immensely poor argument. Any time, any country carries out a state-sanctioned mass execution it is a violation of human rights. If you grant that humans have certain unassailable rights, then it is a concept that can't be trumped by state sovereignty. Accountability is hardly relevant in this case. Iran carries out stoning for adulterers. I wonder how many of my fellow Australians would argue that adulterers deserve to be stoned because they knew the law and they did the crime. The deterrence argument, and the evidence for it, is even worse. So let's be clear about that, the reality that the Indonesian government sanctioned a mass execution of reformed individuals is a travesty.
But what of the attention they received? Was it morally consistent, in world so full of suffering, that we cared about two petty drug smugglers getting shot?
We connected with Myuran and Andrew. We saw their stories on the news every night. We saw our mothers in their mothers. We felt the raw anguish of Brintha, every time she broke down during the whirlwind that was her life. We saw the desolation of Chinthu, as he pleaded over and over, why are you killing him? We saw the staunch resolve of Michael, as he repeatedly made the case for Andrew. As the son of immigrants, I saw the familiar story of hard-working parents leaving their homes and working their lives away for their children, shattered.
I think about the reason I studied medicine. I remember the exact moment I was told my slightly older cousin in India died from a "hole in the heart". I connected with that instantly, and I remember being devastated at the unfairness. She was poor and I wasn't. Where were the doctors? So I thought, I should be a doctor. Empathy. It's the awesome capacity of our species that is the basis for our morality.
Consider any determined individual at any time in history. Chances are, these individuals were determined because they connected with a story of injustice and they resolved to change the world because of it. Consider why we see fly-infested, crying, bloated babies in World Vision commercials? Why not just show the statistics?
Yes, it's true; there are far greater instances of suffering occurring to people far less accountable than Myuran and Andrew. So I guess, when it all happened, I should've instead concerned myself with the plight of the Australian women caught up in domestic violence? But hang on, what about the greater suffering of the poor in rural Haiti? And what about the 3.1 million children who die of poor nutrition every year? Is this actually how we reconcile the real world with our morality?
Let's be clear. Domestic violence and the women trapped in the atrocious culture played out in Australian homes every day, matters. The people dying of preventable disease in Haiti, matter. The over 500,000 innocent that have been killed in West Papua by an Australia-funded Indonesian military, matter. The 8000 children under 5, who die every day from poor nutrition, matter. The world, in many ways, is a shitty, shitty place and every time any being is suffering, it matters.
But no, we are not moral hypocrites for connecting with a story more than other stories. We have no moral obligation to ensure that our concern for the suffering of other people is in proportion with the quantity of that suffering. There may be an obligation when it comes to our dollars, but not our tears. Whenever we empathise with people in barren anguish, it is a good thing. It makes us human, and it generally makes the world a better place.
I'm not making the case for irrationality here. I am an advocate of effective altruism, and I may just take this article as a chance to encourage everyone to visit a charity evaluator like GiveWell and set up a monthly direct deposit of $5. Review it every month, and consider increasing it.
On the contrary, I'm making the case for empathy. Why empathy is never wrong, and why it matters. For those of us that empathise with Myuran and Andrew, that is a good thing. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise. Use that empathy. Remember the moment it all became real for you, and use that memory as a call to action. Consider that every person on death row has a story like our two boys. They all have grieving families, and they are all taken out and executed. Consider other occurrences of injustice and suffering. Do something about it.
It's a cause that Myuran and Andrew, the painter and pastor, would've been proud to be a part of.