In 1977, convicted murderer Gary Gilmore became the first person to be executed in the United States since the reinstatement of the death penalty and the last to die by firing squad. Gilmour’s life and death have been recorded in two landmark books — Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Shot In the Heart, a shatteringly powerful family memoir by Gilmore brother, Rolling Stone journalist Mikal:
“One moment you’re forcing yourself to live through the hell of knowing that someone you love is going to die in a known way, at a specific time and place, and that not only is there nothing you can do to change that, but that for the rest of your life, you will have to move around in a world that wanted this death to happen.”
Or at the very least, did not do enough to prevent it from happening.
The families of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran still face the very real prospect of having to live in such a world. So does the family of Shafqat Hussain, a young Pakistani man who was granted a last-minute stay of execution last week after claims by his lawyers that he was only 14 years old when he is supposed to have committed his crime (the kidnapping and murder of a seven-year-old child) and had confessed under police torture. Pakistan has undertaken 48 executions since lifting the moratorium on the death penalty in response to the Peshawar school massacre last December. Shafqat Hussain’s case is exceptional in having generated a national and international social media campaign in his support.
The problem for anti-death penalty campaigners is not only that it remains so widespread but that it remains so popular, even in countries that abolished it decades ago. Despite the bipartisan opposition to its reintroduction in Australia, opinion polls have consistently shown strong public support for capital punishment, and legal academic George Williams warns that no federal law exists to prevent a state government reintroducing it in a gung-ho display of law’n order. And Triple J’s Hack program indulged in just such a gung-ho display in February when it commissioned Roy Morgan Research to undertake a snap poll that found that a slim majority of Australians believed that death sentences against Australians convicted of drug trafficking overseas ought to be carried out.
There are even stronger levels of support for the death penalty by other means — the stop-the-boats policy that has led not only to the murder of Reza Barati on Manus Island but also the deaths of those returned to unsafe locations and the suicides of those plunged into despair after years of mandatory detention and abuse. Those of us who are opposed to the death penalty in all its manifold forms cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility when we have so comprehensively failed.
And we have failed in large part because we have been more intent on clearing the consciences of campaigners than on achieving successful outcomes.
“Not in our name” sloganeering focuses not on the release of detainees but on washing the blood and dirt from our own hands. For this reason, we must also focus on humane responses (which means a regional solution) to the deaths of asylum seekers at sea, not just an end to mandatory detention.
Guy Rundle suggests an outcomes-focused approach to campaigning for the lives of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. And an outcomes focus is the best rationale for this campaigning for the two Australians rather than for any or all of those awaiting execution around the world. We ought to campaign for Chan and Sukumaran not because Australian lives matter more than the lives of those on death row in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Texas but because in a world of nation-states, we are permitted more licence to speak out on behalf of fellow citizens and hence we have a greater responsibility to do so.
Shot in the Heart also describes the tragic decline of Gilmore’s mother, Bessie, after the execution of her son. Alone in her trailer, she rejected solace even from those who had campaigned for clemency because however much they may have done to save her son’s life, it had not been enough. And we have not done enough either — or rather, however much we may have done, we have not done it effectively. Never forget, then, that despite the vigils and the GetUp petitions and the donations to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Amnesty International, we live in a world and a society that wants this to happen.