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The importance of each human life

Most Australians are shocked and saddened by the impending execution of Andrew Chan, Myuran Sukumuran and their companions in Indonesia. They are being prayed for in churches and schools, and church leaders have pleaded for mercy.

We at Jesuit Social Services deplore capital punishment because it does not respect human dignity. We focus on the persons involved in executions, and particularly on the persons who are killed. We ask what execution means for them and for all those connected with them, including relatives, fellow countrymen, executioners, lawmakers and the victims of the crimes for which the condemned are sentenced to death.

We ask whether the executions will contribute to the flourishing of the persons concerned and to society as a whole. Flourishing means living in security, encouragement to make connections to others, growth in responsibility, and the ability to contribute to society.

The last ten years have enabled us to see what execution will mean for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran. On the evidence of officers and prisoners with whom they have lived they have changed from self-centred, superficial young men to adults who have given their lives to the other prisoners, are reflective and creative, and have found inner depth and strength. Their execution will cut down their lives just as they began to flower. It will take away their capacity to touch others’ lives for the better, and with it the possibility of life changing relationships with many other people.

What the execution means for those involved in ordering, taking part in and approving the execution is more subtle. It encourages people to see the lives of criminals as means to an end, instead of focusing on their human dignity. To be involved in the restraining and shooting of unarmed people, to have children exposed to imagining its details, and to applaud it leads to a hardening of empathy and to a diminished respect for human dignity. Human life becomes a card that can be played for higher stakes. The public imagination becomes a little more corrupted.

These are arguments against execution, not against heavy penalties for criminal offences. The flourishing of persons and of society requires a framework to ensure that those who wrong others in society are restrained and cannot benefit from their actions, and that those who are harmed have their injured human dignity vindicated. The flourishing of society also demands that those who act wrongly be assisted to participate in society and to contribute to it. Society’s response to crime can encourage perpetrators to change and so flourish as human beings.

But capital punishment is uniquely destructive. While people are alive there is the possibility, admittedly sometimes remote, that they will respond by reflecting on their lives, becoming deeper and more generous as human beings, making connections with others and contributing even in small ways to the happiness of others and to society. Capital punishment brutally excludes possibility and leaves all of us the smaller for it.

As we keep Andrew, Myuran and their families in our prayers, we should also deepen our commitment to the importance of each human life.

– Andrew Hamilton SJ