Friday, 12 October 2007

Killing undertaken by the state is still killing

After Bud Welch's daughter was killed in the bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, along with 167 others, he wanted the perpetrator "to fry".

When he saw Timothy McVeigh being led from the courthouse, he hoped someone in a high building with a rifle would "shoot him dead". It was the worst act of domestic terrorism in US history. Among the dead were 19 children who attended a day-care centre in the building, and 700 people suffered terrible injuries.

Welch, a garage owner, was moved, like so many other victims of abhorrent crimes, by an overpowering sense of rage and wish for revenge. "I'd have killed him myself if I'd had the chance," he writes.

Now in his 80s, Welch has become one of the most persuasive campaigners against the death penalty in the US, travelling with the famous abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean, whose life story is told in Dead Man Walking. His turnaround came when he understood "it was revenge and hate" that had motivated McVeigh to kill; he was obsessed with the US Government's murder of cult members at Waco, Texas, in 1993.

"I had to send my own [revenge and hate] in a different direction," he writes.

The few victims - families and survivors - of the Bali bombings contacted by Australian media in the past week have expressed support for the execution of the perpetrators, and dismay at the suggestion by Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland, that Australia should be consistent in its opposition to the death penalty. They have not yet travelled the road Welch has taken - if they ever will - from retribution to reconciliation. Their anger and pain gave politicians the excuse - if it was needed - to play on Australians' worst instincts.

In the slanging match over the merits of executing the Bali bombers, the Government and Labor found it easier to pander to a thirst for revenge than to argue a consistent case against the death penalty. Premeditated, cold-blooded killing is killing even when the corpse is a convicted terrorist and the state the perpetrator.

Instead Labor and the Government tried to have it both ways. They opposed capital punishment, they said, but left the strong impression they would be happy to see Amrosi lined up and shot.

Support for capital punishment fell dramatically in Australia over a decade, from 66 per cent in the early 1990s to about 46 per cent by 2005. But when it comes to the execution of convicted terrorists, a small majority, 56 per cent, according to a Newspoll taken after the Bali bombing, are in favour.

That should not stop our political leaders from unequivocally stating their opposition to the death penalty. If state murder is wrong, then it is wrong in all cases. If it is wrong for Nguyen Tuong Van to be put to death by the Singapore Government, it is wrong for the Bali bombers to be executed by Indonesia.

Such a stance does not require an Australian government to go the extra step of lobbying Indonesia to spare the lives of those subject to Indonesian laws. It means refraining from cheap appeal to the public's base instincts and instead articulating consistent opposition to capital punishment.

There is a worldwide campaign under way to garner support for a United Nations General Assembly resolution in December for a global moratorium on the death penalty. The Howard Government has not yet announced its position.

The campaign has gathered force with the emergence of DNA technology that has led to freedom for many on death row. In the US, 124 death row inmates have been released since 1973 after they were found to be innocent. In January eight men were acquitted of treason in South Korea - more than 30 years after they had been hanged. Such near misses and posthumous acquittals have underlined the dangers and inhumanity of the death penalty. While only 16 countries had abolished it in 1977, that tally has risen to 90.

McClelland's message was that Asia accounts for 80 per cent of the world's executions and this should be an enormous concern for Australians. It means our nationals - our wayward youth such as Nguyen - are at particular risk when they travel in the region.

Fourteen of our Asian neighbours, including Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and the big offenders China and Pakistan, retain the practice of hanging, shooting or giving lethal injections to convicted criminals. How Australia can "tactfully and successfully drive a regional abolitionist movement" is not clear. But it is hard to argue with McClelland's statement that "public comments about the death penalty must be consistent with policy".

Welch says that, after the Oklahoma bombing, 85 per cent of families and survivors polled wanted the death penalty for McVeigh. Six years later, he says, about the time of McVeigh's eventual execution, that figure had fallen by half. And a few years later most of those who had supported the execution "believed it was a mistake. It didn't feel any better."

It is admirable that Welch opted to be on the side of life, even when the life in question was that of his daughter's killer.

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