Now, there is nothing to be done. The execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has produced a fury of activity and comment, but now it flows round a void.

Reports say the prisoners died — shot, tied to stakes, by squads of a dozen, only three rifles loaded with live rounds — singing Amazing Grace. Chan had converted. Maybe he was right, but this side, there is the void.

Everything was worth trying to save them, but nothing was likely to. The death penalty had been on the books for these offences for quite some time — but as part of a system in which it was routinely commuted. In removing, or limiting, this capricious, imperious approach to the matter, President Joko Widodo lives up to his claim to be modernising the country, making it more transparent, less gangsterish.

From our perspective, the removal of clemency en bloc appears ruthless and inhuman. And it is, part of endless political manoeuvring, prop and collateral, contradicted by justice that can still be bought and major players permitted a free hand.

While the pair was still alive everything was worth trying — although there were things best not done, such as threatening aid payments. Now that they’re gone, beyond the mourning for two young men who came to be accepted, eventually, as ours, there has to be a cooler way of thinking about the issue than assailing a country, an island-empire of 250 million people.

Both Chan and Sukumaran suffered an initial lack of interest in their case because they weren’t white, and the shooting of two Asian men was less horrible to contemplate; now that it is useless to do so, their deaths are being used as a pretext for something approaching white rage against the non-white world.

That is worse than a crime; it’s a mistake, cutting us off from all connection to the places where these things occur, condemning us to endlessly re-enact our rage at a world more violent and brutal than we would want it to be.

There was no need or moral purpose in killing the pair, or the other six who died with them. But even the macabre theatre of death that execution involves will be swept up in the daily struggle to stay alive for hundreds of millions. Saying “it’s not fair” or that such deaths enhance the role that fate and futility plays is to say nothing.

People already know that about death, there. They don’t need to hear it from people who have sliced themselves off a bigger portion of life than most elsewhere could imagine. People see the simple, unthinking way in which some people matter more immediately — the helicopters flying in to the Everest slopes, the villages left buried — and they see it even in this, these executions, and how certain things start to matter.

Interiority of soul, depth of character, a story — these will make your life worthwhile, worth saving. The rest will be buried under. That would be precisely the wrong way to move beyond this event, and do nothing to honour the memory of two men who appear to have struggled out of venality and then despair, to become those for whom a world of beauty and meaning is possible.

What should we do instead? Remind ourselves that these cases can’t have a protest drummed up in the last few months — someone must choose, choose themselves to be the one who will take such things on, for men that fate has already taken on.

What else? A willingness to not judge beyond the reprieve one seeks, to turn good campaigns for humanity into bad ones for reason or rights, an understanding that any popular movement for such cannot simply assert universal truths. That what matters above all is acknowledging the humanity of the other, to be negotiated and argued with, to the end of mercy and the closing down of the ritual theatre of violence.

What could be worse now, more in error, than withdrawing an ambassador because a country had applied its own laws? What could be more self-defeating? And what could add more to the waste already piled up than to turn tragedy into pretext?

Now there is nothing to be done. And yet everything will be — except acknowledging that it has happened, and if it is life, not death, we favour, then it is to be properly mourned, to grieve, and then to move on to the next case like it and fight it full force.

But for Chan and Sukumaran, for their memory much could be undone by not admitting there is, now, nothing to be done.

Peter Fray

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