I don’t recall the specifics of my reaction, in April 2005, when news broke of the arrest of Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and their compatriots in Bali for heroin trafficking. I vaguely recall feeling dismay, incredulity at how quickly their plans appeared to have come unstuck, and a sense of relief (or perhaps it was smug satisfaction) that I would never find myself in such agonisingly difficult circumstances. In any case, a few months later my son was born and I was, for a time, seemingly insulated from world events by the cocoon of early parenthood. Perhaps it is because I was occupied with the needs of an infant that the execution, in December of that year, of Australian Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore did not even register in my consciousness. This apparent oversight is something that now seems both unforgivable and portentous.
Almost a decade has passed since then, and those events, which I grimly appraised and filed away with such apparent equanimity, have come back to haunt me. And it seems only fair. There must have been some enormous blunder, a tragic lapse of attention, for it to all have come to this. And part of the inattention was mine.
Ten years on, I find myself unable to turn my gaze away from the predicament of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, from the anguished hope and despair on the faces of their families, from the bleak pronouncements of their legal team and the terrible contemplation of the fate that seems likely to await them.
I have had my own apprenticeship in loss recently. In the space of 10 months I lost four members of my family, including my father. The inexorable progress of my dad’s terminal illness and death was something I witnessed at close range. I watched, heartbroken, his evolving awareness of his own demise, as his quiet hopes for a reprieve — another year, a month, a few more weeks — were extinguished, one by one. Dad’s death was only made tolerable by the knowledge that, at 72, his life had reached a natural conclusion of sorts and his most visceral fear, that of being alone, was mitigated by the presence of a loving family in his final days.
As events in Indonesia gather pace, what preoccupies me every day — and what torments me at night — are thoughts of how Myuran and Andrew will die, and the certain knowledge that whatever comfort is to be found will only be that they can offer themselves. I try, to no avail, not to imagine what Myuran and Andrew must be feeling, after clinging to hope for many years and working so hard to better themselves.
It is not clear what particular alchemy gave rise to the extraordinary transformation in these young men. Living with the threat of death for almost a decade must be a sobering experience, but friendships, family bonds, mentors and perhaps an intrinsically compassionate element of the Indonesian penal system have all played a role in their rehabilitation. The dynamics of change are undoubtedly complex and elusive, and for most of us, they would require a lifetime to fully appreciate. Like many people, I made terrible mistakes when I was younger. No laws were broken; my transgressions were of the more mundane variety although, viewed from a certain vantage point, they were perhaps no better. Certainly my proximity to the people I hurt was greater. By virtue of living in a particular time and place, there was no penalty for my mistakes, but that does not mean I have not reflected on or had cause to deeply regret some of the things I’ve done. I know with certainty that I would never repeat them.
As the campaign for mercy swells in Australia and within the international community, events have marched inexorably forward, toward an outcome that remains painfully obscure. As I set these words down, there is still hope for Andrew and Myuran. I have to hold onto this hope because I have a sense that it’s all I have left. As I enter middle age, grappling with the loss of my father and my fears for a son who will undoubtedly make mistakes of his own, my sense of relief that it’s not happening to me has diminished. If there is no mercy for Myu and Andrew, if there’s no prospect of change both in ourselves and in the world, something vital has failed. I don’t know what precisely, but I have a feeling it’s because we thought it wasn’t happening to us, and we looked away. We didn’t pay attention.