There is maybe one way, one audacious way, to try to save the lives of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Let’s offer Indonesia some moneyyyyyy.

Not a bribe. Not a direct payment. Not a payoff.

But money as reparation for their crimes, paid by their country of citizenship.

The Islamic justice system allows this. As did Western justice systems until pretty recently. The Indonesian justice system is a hybrid form, but there is enough cultural “scope” to make a reparation deal plausible enough for President Joko Widodo to consent to it.

So we should use the possibility as a way of saving their lives — and also circumventing the accusation, implicit and explicit, that Indonesia is a more barbarous country for retaining the death penalty.

Here’s how it would work:

Pick a development project that’s on the shelf in Indonesia. There must be hundreds. Something worth about $10 million to $20 million, and offer to do it. Not in five years’ time, but in six months — go to whoa. The Australian government will foot the bill.

The project is offered as reparation by one nation to another, for the damage two of our citizens did to them — adding to the drug trade and criminality of a country that is ably self-sufficient in those qualities.

Make no comment on the morality of the death penalty, make no claim that this should be a universal value. Make it part of the deal that Chan and Sukumaran will serve out long prison sentences, and that that condition will be adhered to.

Don’t talk about how these people have changed, what good individuals these people have become. That idea assumes a bias towards the value of the individual person over and above the collective good, which is the one (and only one) way of running a complex society.

We only threw out that collective notion of order — the conservative idea that some lives must be forfeit to guarantee an inherent order that makes other lives possible — in the mid-1960s. The United States still hasn’t.

Saying that “there is no value in killing these young men” simply ignores the fact that the death penalty works off a different basis. The values that undergird the death penalty are the need for social terror, to implant the horror of it, of dying like that, in the collective breast.

Lecturing Indonesia about the value of human life from the West is particularly odious, given our role in fomenting the mega-violence that brought then-president Suharto to power a half-century ago, installing kleptocrat regimes that have kept the poor poor for decades, no matter what the balance sheets say.

That’s one reason why Jokowi is so adamant about proceeding with the executions. Having won a victory against old elites, he sees himself as representing the poor and the masses, in however limited a fashion possible.

So a commitment to the death penalty, applied even-handedly, especially to Western citizens, has nothing to do with barbarism. The reverse. It’s his commitment to universalism, to the idea of non-capricious law.

So the only way that gives him an out — and he appears to be a humane man, and may want one — would be an offer that would allow him to transmute the death penalty without stepping down from it.

What possibility that the Abbott government, or any government, to be fair, would try this? Not much. There’s a section of Australian public opinion that believe two young men who have never actually killed anyone themselves should be killed for the putative deaths that might — or might not — have occurred from their actions. I hope it is small, and represents the lower depths. But it also contains more than a few swing voters, without doubt.

The Abbott government is better placed to try this long shot, however — since one assumes, or, these days, hopes that Labor wouldn’t use it to outflank them on the Right.

What chance of success? Unknowable. Small, presumably. But it’s worth trying anything, especially something that is not a carrier for smug Western moral superiority. It would be a breakout from the now-ritualised, heartfelt statements from the dispatch box, whose chance of success is zero, and known to be.

These situations demand not our pity, nor our conscience, nor our displays of morality, which are useless. They demand our audacity, our creativity, and our real determination to succeed, and I can’t see anything else that has a chance at the moment.

Peter Fray

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