Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Visceral Responses

Pete Lawley at forcryingoutloud and the proprietor of tubagooba have both written very thoughtfully about the Amrosi death sentence, without going down the "What the hell, let's boil him in lard and have done with it route." Now that I've pointed you to two pieces of good, well-considered writing on the issue, perhaps I can relax and write a piece of my own, which I suspect will turn out to be a lot more visceral.

To start with, I'm against the death penalty, even in Amrosi's case; I was thinking about possible alternatives last night, and I did come up with one which manages to avoid the equally unacceptable, in my view at least, "throw the bastard down a dark hole and forget about him solution". But first let's get the visceral responses out of the way. They're a rather personal collection, and definitely not in line with prevailing community opinion, but frankly I don't give a rat's haemorrhoid about that, let alone any other part of the relevant orifice.

I wasn't personally affected by the Bali bombing; I lost neither friends nor family in the event so I'm not going to pretend, this far on from the event, that I have any deep seated feelings about it, one way or the other. For the victims, it isn't over and won't be for a long time but I'm not going to waste any time on a pointless attempt to convince anyone that I feel a lot of compassion for these people, I really do, honest to God. Rightly or wrongly, the Bali bombing is long since over for me, and I'm heartily sick and tired of all the humbugs who insist on telling me how I should feel about it. If you want to maintain your rage, go ahead: mine wore out around November 11, 1980 when I finally realised how damn silly it was. For the victims, there won't be any getting over it and moving on, but to everyone who, like me, was personally unaffected by the event, but continues to confect outrage on behalf of the victims: get a life!

Especially anyone who has argued that the Amrosi death penalty is justified, or even necessary, to give some "closure" to these people: say what you like about Brian Deegan, he's at least one person who won't get any sense of closure from the execution, and there's no reason to suppose he's on his own. The "closure" argument has to be the most canting argument in favour of capital punishment ever to come out of the US: I'd like to ask its proponents who they would propose we execute to give "closure" to those wrongfully executed as the result of miscarriages of justice? Maybe we could start with the crusading DAs who withhold evidence from the defence to improve their chances of getting a conviction, and work our way on from there. This is beside the point in the Amrosi case, of course: Indonesia isn't the US, and Amrosi hasn't made any serious claims of innocence, unless you're prepared to accept the "I was really after the Jews and Americans" defence. Yes, what he did was wrong but that doesn't make killing him in turn right and that's the nub of the issue as far as I'm concerned.

To everyone who's rung up talk-back radio, or posted a comment on a blog anywhere with yet another stupid suggestion for the creative use of bacon or lard in the execution: get real! The whole "Muslim fundamentalists are mortally afraid of pork, it's like kryptonite to them" story is an urban legend, probably arising from some fundamental misconceptions about the standard of British infantry weapons at the time of the India Mutiny and the fact that the Mutiny was caused (so the story goes) by rumours that the rifle cartridges were greased with either pig fat or mutton fat, depending on whether the rumour was circulating among Muslim or Hindu troops. Hello people: the "cartridge" was a paper or cardboard packet with a pre-measured amount of gunpowder, which the trooper had to bite open before he poured the contents into the muzzle of his gun.

And while we're on the topic of what is, essentially, pig-ignorance, anyone who has taken the "wrap the bastard in bacon and fry him in lard" line has taken at least one step too many down the road of conceding that Amrosi's cock-eyed view of the world is actually true. Unless you share his belief in the 72 virgin paradise, taking special steps to make sure he doesn't get in is stupid. Maybe you should take a look at why you're prepared to concede so much ground to a terrorist's superstitious beliefs.

Where Ken Parish deplores the left's rush to the high ground on the Amrosi execution, I haven't been too impressed by either of Simon Crean's or John Howard's rushes to nowhere in particular. I think it's giving both men far too much credit to assert that their declarations of respect for Indonseian sovereignty are intended for overseas consumption. Both are playing to the local audience, especially Howard, as his recent call for a nationwide debate on the death penalty shows. This is dog-whistle politics at its sleaziest and in no way worthy of the "Burkean Conservative" Howard purports, or aspires, to be.

On one view a Burkean Conservative isn't much more than a carping time server, complaining that his electors won't stay bought; of course this is not the view that Burkean Conservatives take of themselves. Burke's most important claim, in his Address to the Electors of Bristol is simple: an elected representative must be trusted as a man of good conscience who will exercise his public office in the best interests of his electors, or what he pereceives their interests to be in the longer term. It is up to the electors to elect such a representative; once elected, if they have chosen wisely, he may, and should, be trusted to exercise his office responsibly, even if his actions are not immediately popular.

While this view of the representative's role doesn't require of politicians anything like the saintliness that is required to make a totalitarian dictatorship an acceptable form of government, it does impose one significant requirement; the representative must at least be honest enough to disclose his* conscience to electors. Also, at least implicitly, Burkean Conservatism assumes the representative to be a man of independent conscience, independent enough at least to act against public opinion when the public good demands it.

So where is John Howard's conscience on the Amrosi sentence? On the basis of his conduct to date, nowhere in sight seems a reasonable conclusion. Howard has looked to the polling, seen that 60% of Australians are in favour of the death penalty and made a fairly obvious play for their support. Howard's supporters assert that the other 400 or so people in the polling sample, obviously came from the educated, out of touch elites who, on the subject of capital punishment, are happy to abandon their democratic principles in favour of their effete personal consciences. But the overall results don't support this view: all that can be said on the basis of the 60/40 split is that 60% of Australians (most of whom, no doubt, are normal and decent with perhaps a small fraction of the degenerates and perverts) support capital punishment and the other 40% don't. And, in the end, this has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment; it's as relevant to the issue as the level of community support for slavery would be if anyone proposed to re-introduce that.

John Howard's suggestion that state oppositions should adopt the re-introduction of capital punishment as part of their policy platform to promote a national debate on the issue has nothing of Burkean Conservatism in it; a Burkean Conservative would, I think, be forthright enough to declare his principled opposition to capital punishment, on all the usual grounds (the most telling being that our justice system is fraught with the risk of human error, and that a wrongful execution is an injustice that simply cannot be undone) and on that basis declare that, as their elected representative, there is no way he will support capital punishment if it is ever put to a vote of the parliament. He might even, as the current parlance has it, attempt to bring the voters along with him. But for a self-styled Burkean Conservative to declare his principled opposition to a measure which isn't even his to legislate on, then promote the idea that his own party should adopt it as policy when contesting elections for other levels of government is, to say the least, a bit bizarre.

Like John Howard, I have a few friends who are neither vengeful nor vindictive, but nonetheless support capital punishment on the basis that anyone who takes a life should face the ultimate penalty. I have very few among the lard-boiling extremist supporters of capital punishment. It's actually possible for me to sit down with one of the more moderate supporters of capital punishment and have something like a reasonable discussion: in the end, many will acknowledge that it might be best left alone until the human fallibility problem is solved. Or we simply agree to differ on this point. But Howard's statements on capital punishment aren't intended for these moderate supporters of capital punishment - they're intended for the lard-boilers. Once more he's shoring up his political position by appealing to extreme opinion in a way that, in the long run, does great harm to the Australian polity. I repeat, hardly the sort of behaviour you would expect from a Burkean Conservative.

To finish, let's get back to that alternative to the death sentence for Amrosi. It's pretty simple really and old-fashioned enough to work as a compromise with those who long for a return to the good old days of the lex talionis, while managing to retain at least a touch of lefty humanitarianism. I'd outlaw the bugger.

I'd have him taken into a hospital, anaesthetised and, under proper medical supervision and care, the mark of Cain would be tattooed on his forehead. A proclamation would be issued that anyone seeing a man weraing this mark is to shun him and have no commerce with him. On the other hand, I'd make it quite clear that no violence was to be done to his person: he's just been thrown out of civil society.

Because I am a soft-hearted lefty, I'd make one small concession: one day a year he would be allowed to front up before a tribunal and given the chance to show that in his life to date he has done enough good to others to wipe the stain off his reputation. If he manages to do this, it's back into hospital for laser removal of the tattoo, and he would be able to pick up the rest of his life as a member of the community, albeit a slightly despised one.

It's fanciful, I know, but it does have at least one virtue: if it could be made to work, there would be no martyrdom for Amrosi, neither the immediate martyrdom of death nor the ongoing martyrdom of being jailed for the cause. Only many long years of community contempt which might actually serve as a deterrent to other would be heroes and martyrs. There's no martyrdom in living out your life as a pariah.

Afterword: this rant actually started on Saturday and put aside until I decided to complete it last night in a fit of pique. It's probably been overtaken by more recent blogospheric events and not a lot in it that hasn't been ranted about already elsewhere, but sometimes a man's just gotta rant what a man's gotta rant.

* Since John Howard is obviously a bloke, I think we'll skip the politically correct non-sexist language for the time being.

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