Nguyen Tuong Van is beyond the reach of human aid, but the process of
recrimination now under way is not pointless – if we learn the right
lessons, we may be able to save lives in future.

Robert Richter
kicked things off at this morning’s vigil in Melbourne, saying that the
Howard government should have done more than it did. “I believe a lot
more could been done both legally and otherwise, by that I mean
politically … We know that the Singapore government is susceptible to
pressure, it has not been pressured at all.”

No-one can be certain whether greater pressure would have worked, or
would have been counter-productive. There was never any likelihood,
however, that the Australian government would go out of its way to
attack the principle of capital punishment.

Paul Kelly expressed it well in last Saturday’s Australian:

Australia has accepted the death penalty in the region for
decades. Our position is different to that of the European Union. We
don’t campaign against the death penalty. We don’t launch protests. We
don’t raise the issue in multilateral forums or in bilateral meetings
or in regional gatherings. We don’t tell Asian nations that their
relations with Australia will be compromised by the death penalty.

Perhaps we should have done these things, but we haven’t.

I believe Howard’s opposition to capital punishment is genuine – he
has expressed it consistently over a long period, and there would be no
reason for him to dissemble to such an extent. But all his political
instincts work against making an issue out of it.

Opposition to the death penalty has always been led by the political
left. The people to whom it matters strongly are Howard’s enemies. He
might agree with them in principle, but he would never join them in a

Howard was even less likely to take up the other main argument against
Nguyen’s execution: that drug dealing is not, in any rational sense, a
crime, but just a market transaction like any other. But he is not
alone in that; the most shocking thing about the whole affair has been
the display of our collective irrationality about the drug issue.

Yet of course it is precisely in such cases of “moral panic” that
mistakes are most likely to be made – as we have seen this week with the collapse
of a celebrated French pedophilia case. And one of the compelling
arguments against the death penalty is that mistakes are irretrievable.