End of life illness stories come to this moment: the final period of waiting and staying awake. Sleeping mats on the floors of hospital rooms, dozing in chairs, holding hands, keeping shifts and vigils, hard choices, knowing what is to come. There’s an intense wish repeatedly expressed to get there in time: for the living to be present with the dying, to let them know that they are safe and cared for, and that those they love are safe and can go on from this point, to let them go well.
A vigil is a form of ethical attention. It’s an act of deliberation, a commitment to staying awake during the time that is normally kept for sleeping. It comes to us from words that invoke the simple fact of being alive and strong. We keep vigil because we are still here, and we have the capacity to give our time to waiting: attention as the rarest and purest form of human generosity, as Simone Weil put it.
So this week Australians and now many others around the world are keeping a vigil, in growing numbers, for two lives trapped in the gift of a system that seems to have innoculated itself against any possibility of saving them. It is almost beyond belief that political calculation could play so large a part, and yet there it is. We’re amazed, shocked, disbelieving and much more informed about the procedural technicalities of death by shooting than we were. It’s like something happening in black and white, in slow motion. It doesn’t belong in this world.
Except that it’s here.
Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan have achieved so much where they are because the Indonesian prison system has some fundamental expectations of prisoner self-sufficiency, that place a different set of practical demands on prisoners and their families than we commonly see in Australia. What happened next is suddenly being recognised by advocates of restorative justice around the world as a unique configuration of structure, agency and institutional trust. The risks taken by the prison management itself in trusting them, and the way that they have each responded, resulted in a new system working in the best possible way for others. The prison governor testified on their behalf.
Australians have been taken by surprise by the fact that this restorative work has been going on for several years, and that our lazy stereotypes of “drug kingpin” and “godfather” are so completely out of date. This is not who they are. And from the level of support that they’re now getting, it’s very clear that significant money could be raised to extend their work, and perhaps even transfer some aspects from Indonesia to Australia.
So this is a very, very hard moment, and a very difficult decision to accept. Why shoot them now, after all this time? What possible future is there for rehabilitation as a vision for anyone once this thing is done?
Understandably, it’s easier to retreat into the mechanics of standard operating procedures than to admit a misgiving, to explore instead the complex potential of trust—in human capability, in rehabilitation, in imagination. In every leadership manual ever we’ve accepted the same limiting proposition: that strong leadership amounts to a willingness to act decisively and to push on regardless, braving unpopularity. There is nothing at all, it seems, on how strong leadership could go about reversing its own decisions, on the basis of fresh evidence.
A couple of days ago someone wrote privately to me that what’s happening is causing us all to “have a good hard look at our humanity”. I don’t think that’s overstating it, and I think this self-scrutiny is at the heart of our vigil. We’ve all seen the expressions on the faces of the men in orange jumpsuits waiting to be killed, but we’ve rarely had such intense exposure to what comes before that—the waiting, the bargaining, the families, the dread.
Governments who execute force us all to watch, but what we feel and think about it is up to us.
So while we’re waiting, we’re wondering: could we have done more, said something different, shown up sooner? It’s not just the people who gave casual answers to polls that were then used to claim something about Australian popular support for execution, or even the people who commissioned and published those polls in the first place—as if this really should be a crowdsourced verdict, like some kind of reality TV voting process. It’s not the difficult possibility that Australians didn’t speak out sooner because they’re not white. It’s not even the relentless tallpoppyism that is still, incredibly, causing people to say that there’s nothing special about them and the attention is undeserved.
The vigil we’re keeping is the answer. The attention is deserved because they have as much right to have their human sovereignty over their own lives defended with great force, as any of us do. The attention is deserved as it was for Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, and Ms Dhu, and T J Hickey. Human sovereignty over life matters, and really has to be bigger than state sovereignty; this is why murder, like torture, can’t be part of the instrumentality of the state. Whatever it might achieve, whatever political strategy it might be part of, is very, very tiny on the scale of what will be sacrificed.
Today there are public vigils being held in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and other smaller places. More and more voices, including powerful ones, are speaking up. There is almost no hope left—but the most incredible stories of human survival are those where there was no hope at all, and those waiting did not give up.
The Mercy Campaign petition is still open. Please sign if you can.
And please watch this. Myuran Sukumaran in his own words, on living. Or this, on the projects they’ve developed within Kerobokan. At the very least, know what they have achieved.
Last night I drove with my teenage daughter to the vigil held in the Sydney church where Myuran Sukumaran’s family and wider community are part of the congregation. We were welcomed with real warmth, and it was an honour to be there. Messages from Myuran and the Chan family were read aloud, and Myuran’s grandmother was an unflinching and unforgettable presence.
So all possible courage at this late hour to everyone involved. Updates to the Mercy Campaign petition are being sent to the Indonesian government regularly. And there will be another vigil on Friday evening. This is an extraordinary time in Australia.
On the long drive home, we were stopped by a cop. He asked where we’d been, and I told him. “They shouldn’t be executed,” he said. Just like that.
This morning in darkness, the transfer of prisoners to the island where they will be executed has begun. Because the purpose of execution is to discipline others through horror without exposing the state to implications of cruelty, then execution by government is the worst kind of double standard: lockdown secrecy and extravagant display all at once. Let’s put this very plainly: there is no ethical or compassionate way to end a life without entirely defeating the purpose of execution. So there has to be very evident cruelty, and there has to be a thin veil of procedural correctness over it all.
“None of us have 300 years” (Audre Lorde). When we are all gone—all the politicians, the shooters, the judges, the witnesses who insulted and those who wept, the dealers and the users, and the president himself—this moment will be part of history, alongside all the men in orange jumpsuits waiting quietly for the speeches to end. Because in terms of the impact on others, there is absolutely no difference between legal and illegal execution, except candour.
Go well, Myuran Sukumaran.
Thank you for this Kate. We need to be there and try to avert the ending. And even if we can’t, the vigil can serve to celebrate the life and what might have been. I have signed the petition and talked with you and hope but what remains with me is what a wonderful model of masculinity Myuran presents. That model can outlive him if what we fear occurs. I am wondering about the audiences for hangings/ executions in the past – were they all glorifying the death – or did some attend in sorrow and mourning?
You are making me reflect deeply on vigil and the place it has in our lives.
Yes, recognising vigil as something we are capable of giving to each other is a source of real hope for me, and I think you’re right that in some of the audiences to violent dying there must have been those who were keeping the most painful watch. I have certainly seen arguments that watching execution videos is a practice that honours the dying, but I have seen the same argument for refusing to watch–for refusing to let fear or grief become any more of a social spectacle than we have already made it.
I suppose it’s a personal choice. I was unprepared for the sense of privilege and connection experienced when I watch my moribund baby die. The nurse (an agency nurse from Australia as it happens) was excellent. She created a calm space for us, taking his twin to another room, and allowed me to be the one who acknowledged that his life had expired. I can’t describe it except to say it was like a flame that been gently snuffed out. It was very beautiful.
Having said that, this death did not happen in the context of injustice and violence, just a sadness for what might have been.
This might sound horribly maudlin, but for us his death (that we wished had never had to happen) helped put into perspectives the series of treatment and surgery that his twin needed for a much less severe but debilitating condition.