The Ethics Of… Executing Drug Smugglers

I know I was scheduled to take another set of low blows at fictional stories for children this week, but in a nation where the death penalty has been outlawed for nearly half a century, it’s not every day I get a chance to discuss it.

For those not in the know, right now two Australian citizens are imprisoned in Bali, awaiting execution by firing squad. Their crime? Ringleading an attempt to smuggle 8.3 kg (18 lb) of heroin (valued at about $4 million AUS) from Indonesia to Australia.

The details of the case are somewhat disputed, with many of the smugglers being argued to be ‘mules’ rather than willing participants, but much of the information is clear:

Criminal mastermind at work.

Despite the case against these two being pretty much air-tight, both the Australian Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs have asked Indonesian authorities to make exceptions to their blanket death penalty for the “production, transit, import and possession of narcotics/psychotropic drugs”, and reduce the Sukumaran and Chan’s sentences to life in prison. These pleas were made on the general principle that the Australian government should seek to protect its citizens rights, according to how Australia defines them – since Australia opposes the death penalty, its government should then seek to save its citizens from execution even in other countries where it is legal (within reason of course – no-one’s going to war over these guys). So far those appeals have been rejected by the Indonesian government and it looks certain the executions will go ahead very soon.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction to this situation in Australia has been… mixed, to put it nicely. One the one hand a nation-wide campaign has been started to prevent the execution of our citizens, complete with concerts, petition rallies and celebrity-studded viral videos. On the other hand, Triple J (which it should be noted is generally regarded as a left-wing radio station) recently ran a poll of 2,123 people which found that 52% were fine with Australian drug smugglers being executed in other countries. Indeed, it’s not uncommon even in the most soft-hearted, liberal, greenie, commie circles to hear people say ‘well, they knew what the punishment was when they chose to smuggle the stuff’ and shrug fatalistically.

So, who’s in the right here? Should we all be standing against the killing of our fellow man, no matter how awful their crimes? Or should we just leave them to their fate, since they knew the risks of their crime before they tried it? Or is the Indonesia government in the right here, and the death penalty a righteous punishment for the great crime of drug smuggling?

Well first we need to cut through some of the mess surrounding this case;

It doesn’t matter if Sukumaran and Chan are ‘repentant’ and/or ‘reformed

A lot of the campaign to prevent the executions is based on the claim that the two smugglers have changed their ways, and will never, ever do such a terrible thing ever again. Leaving aside the sheer scale of my cynicism about that claim, even if these two have fully reformed into new men, it makes zero difference to things. Sukumaran and Chan will never reoffend, thanks largely to the fact that even their best-case scenario involves the rest of their lives in an Indonesian jail. And since one of the major arguments for the death penalty is that it serves as a deterrent to other would-be smugglers, Sukumaran and Chan aren’t actually relevant at all – they are simply the context of this discussion, not the subjects. Speaking of which…

I have zero issue with killing either Sukumaran or Chan

To be blunt, I don’t know or care about either of them, and neither do most of you. Even if I didn’t know about their crimes, their individual deaths would be as meaningless and inconsequential to me, you and most everyone else in the world, as all the other dozens of deaths taking place each minute of every day – to argue otherwise is to suggest that you personally are grieved by over 120,000 deaths today alone. The fact that these two particular individuals also happen to have been involved in serious, premeditated criminal activity, which aimed to import a large quantity of a life-destroying, highly addictive substance into my country, only confirms my total disregard for their lives. In the context of the more than 5 million deaths that have taken place so far this year, Sukumaran or Chan will be of the more deserving of oblivion.

The crime they committed was completely unethical

There has been a lot of debate about the legalisation of various drugs in recent decades, and at another time I would gladly discuss the various risks, benefits and precautions necessary to a legal narcotics trade. But this crime is not that time. Remember, these guys didn’t just bring in an ounce of weed for recreational use – they were importing a large, commercial volume of heroine. This is an extremely addictive, extremely unhealthy narcotic, that is currently illegal (and therefore unregulated) in Australia. I don’t care how pro-drugs you are, there is no denying that this import at this time would have been abused, destroying lives, facilitating crime, and draining our health services all so Sukumaran and Chan could make some easy money.

So with the waters un-muddied, where does that leave us? Based on these fairly damning reviews of our smugglers, it would appear I’m all for it, right? Hell I even said it right up there: “I have zero issue with killing either Sukumaran or Chan”. Can’t get a lot clearer than that, right?

Time to form a mob!

Well, no. Just because I don’t care about our two smugglers chums, doesn’t mean I agree with the death penalty. Why not? Because individual cases like this tend to influence our attitude to a concept in general – to illustrate, being robbed by a guy with an Indian accent may not be enough to turn you racist overnight, but it sure as hell isn’t going to improve your attitude to Indian people as a whole. In the same way, our attitude towards the execution of Sukumaran and Chan may not have an impact on Australian law any time soon, but over time and similar situations, it may well compound until enough people feel strongly enough about it for some politicians to pick it up as a pet cause.

Don’t believe me? Then feel free to explain to me how the relatively tiny (and completely legal) arrivals of asylum seekers in Australia via boat (but not planes) somehow became an issue debated at national elections. The answer? Because enough people started caring about it for politicians to win votes off of the topic. And thus turn the wheels of power.

Whazzat? 100,000 people who’ll vote for someone to ban red liquorice? Sold!

For the death penalty to be ethical it has to pass the same criteria as everything else: do the benefits outweigh the costs, and is there a superior alternative?

In terms of benefits, the death penalty is actually pretty solid – you know that criminal that spends all their time destabilising society for personal gain? The one that you have to spend thousands to contain and thousands more to rehabilitate (which might not even work)? Well now they’re gone. No more criminal – they dead. No more risk to our upstanding citizens, no more government cost to contain and rehabilitate them and, if the criminal were motivated by circumstances beyond their control like poverty of mental illness, no more suffering for them either. Everybody wins!

This may sound brutal – and it is – but it’s also very true. Crime is bad for any society, and the opportunity to simply eliminate the worst criminals from society is an extremely appealing one. Low cost, low mess, and when the criminals in question willingly committed the crime, despite having other options open to them and knowing the punishment if they were caught, it’s zero sympathy as well.

But this convenience is pretty much the only benefit capital punishment offers. There are lots of claims that it’s a disincentive, preventing people from turning to crime in the first place, but this argument stumble on the very simple fact that no criminal ever really believes they will be caught. Just look at Sukumaran and Chan; two apparently intelligent individuals who decided to smuggle drugs in a highly professional operation, despite knowing they could be executed if they were caught. Do you seriously reckon they would have tried it if they had really thought it was likely they would be captured? Why risk their lives just for money if they thought the odds were even slightly against them? Because they didn’t of course – just like every other criminal, they thought they were the exception.

And to put it bluntly, they had pretty good reason to think they’d get away with it, at least on the Bali side of the operation. You’d think in a country with a standing death penalty for the production, transport or even possession of a narcotic, drugs would be extremely hard to come by. And you’d be wrong. Very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that I struggle to explain just how easy it is to score drugs there. Drugs are everywhere in Bali, to the point where there is an entirely separate menu for food with magic mushrooms in it at many establishments. Simply put, the death penalty is no disincentive here, a fact further proven by Indonesian law expert Professor Tim Lindsey’s research to the same effect.

Truly a place of sober restraint.

So what about the costs of the death penalty then? The most obvious is the sheer permanency of the decision – there are no take-backs when you’ve just shot a person through the head. This might not sound like too big a deal given the sheer number of appeals death row prisoners receive, but you’d be surprised. In the US of A for example 150 people have been freed from death row since 1973, based on new evidence. Had the government been a bit more direct with their sentence, they would have been dead, and the new evidence would be far too little, far too late.

But maybe this sort of risk is worth it for the convenience and financial savings offered by the death penalty? Well assuming we could somehow avoid the incredible cost the execution of one criminal would cost us – roughly $1.5 million dollars in the USA for the trial and necessary appeals alone – that still leaves us with one extremely serious objection: you just handed the government the right to kill you.

I’ve always found it odd that the same political groups that seem to hate the idea of ‘big government’ also seem to be fine with literally handing that government the right to kill its own citizens. Because that’s what the death penalty is, after all – the legal right for the government of a nation to kill certain citizens that fall outside the laws it sets. Now of course the government can only kill you if you break the law! So only scum like Sukumaran and Chan need to worry, right? But who writes those laws? The ones that determine who the government is allowed to kill and under what circumstances? The government. And as long-time readers of this site will know, the ability of the citizens to keep a determined government from changing those laws is precisely fuck all.

The few benefits that the death penalty offers, are vastly outweighed by the costs it demands from us all. The potential for fatal error, its proven ineffectiveness in preventing crime, and the massive, unaccountable power it hands to our government should give us pause to use it even against the most despicable of criminals. The fact that Sukumaran and Chan are facing this punishment in a foreign nation means nothing; they may well be scum, unworthy of sympathy or mercy, but what their execution represents is far greater than they ever will be – one more gradual step towards a world where this unjustifiable, terribly dangerous practice is considered acceptable. We must resist this regression with all our might.


4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Executing Drug Smugglers

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