Even though I know what the reality is, it gives me hope, it gives me a purpose, it gives me something to do. However little time I have.
— Myuran Sukumaran, Australian artist
Here’s a story that ought to be filling us all with hope: a big tale of resilience, creativity, cooperation and opportunity, driven by a remarkable and gifted Australian. Look at him here: he is young, and healthy, and doing so much good. He has time left. If I was his mother watching this, I’d be awash with pride at what he’s achieved.
But his reality is this: that right at this minute plans are being made for him to be taken to a field, tied to a post and shot. Let’s not mince words, this is what we mean by “death penalty” and “firing squad”, and anyone who is still championing this as a just outcome needs to look much more closely at the violence in the details. There is nothing at all separating this killing from that of Kenji Goto, and the only whisper of daylight between this and the shooting of Kajieme Powell is the premeditation, the forced contemplation of what’s to come. Nothing at all distinguishes what his mother will feel when his body is returned, from the grief of Junko Ishido.
None of us are going to live for ever, and this is why mortality really is inseparable from love. We all wonder how, when, in what condition we’ll end our turn; we wonder who will be with us, and how they will get up and carry on without us when we stop. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, an intensely personal discussion of what happens to individuals and their families at the end of life, suggests that this is why humans really cannot bear the idea of dying. So we go on suffering because we don’t know how to accept that what’s around the next bend—the next birthday, the next family wedding—isn’t going to be part of our life time. The weather will continue, the buildings will stay up and the clocks won’t stop; it’s just that we won’t be here to see it, and people we love will have to go on without us.
Gawande and many others are now arguing that it’s vital to good healthcare that we learn to make peace with human dying, and let that direct us towards living while we’re here in a way that reflects our values. This isn’t a simple thing: it takes time to untangle our own values and beliefs from those of our community and the cultures that shape us. It’s easy to get taken up with the things that seem to matter to others, the achievements that are celebrated, the stuff that is envied. But in the end we all have a fairly strong sense of what we each really care about—what we would go on doing if it was the last day of our lives.
UK palliative care specialist and cancer patient Kate Granger, for example, has taught me a great deal about what it means to value work, and to fight to continue working while thinking that this might be the last year for doing anything at all. Lisa Bonchek Adams advocates tirelessly for the right of patients with metastatic breast cancer to have their condition recognised as a disease stage that can be lived with, and in so doing she continues to love and care for her children, her family and friends. Both have made hard personal choices to continue in treatment, and to do this in public, because this is what enables them to go on living with purpose.
This is Gawande’s point: we each approach the question of what it would take to live the best possible day today on our own terms, whatever the constraints we’re facing. This isn’t just a question for people who are sick; the best possible day is a wish we can all offer each other, for the simple reason that we’re all mortal too. And this really should be the basis for how we treat each other, how we value each other’s time, and how we react to the knowledge that someone is facing their death. This isn’t just about ethics in institutional or constitutional decision-making, or state sovereignty: we stop in our tracks for death, and we try to bring every possible resource of care and hope to the end of someone’s life, because one day that’s exactly how it will be for each of us.
How people die and how we participate in their deaths is as much about us as about them. Our own humanity is at stake.
— Eric Manheimer, MD, Twelve Patients
And so I can’t make peace with this dying at all. I wander round the house thinking about him, and I know that thousands of us are doing exactly the same, right at this moment. Those close to him have said goodbye and look exhausted with grief. I can’t imagine their pain.
Execution strips all possibility of dignity or care from the event of dying, which is why it’s used wherever the aim is to brutalise and terrify. The aim isn’t simply to end life, but to cause its end to be a spectacle, and to force the whole world to contemplate the violence and abjection of life being ended in this way. Kenji Goto’s mother, pleading for his release, said that she would sacrifice her life for his, and we all knew that this was an unbearable cruelty that she should be made to suffer the knowledge of his death, and her exclusion from it. Nothing is different here.
Myuran Sukumaran is an Australian artist. With persistence and vision he has created a studio and an educational enterprise filled with generosity, and inspired an incredible campaign to try to keep him alive. And at this last minute, he’s still there painting, caring for his family, thinking it all through, making a portrait of himself and the island of Nusakambangan, where prisoners are taken to be shot.
He is one of us, and he is still alive. Don’t disturb him. Let him paint.
While there is still even a fraction of time to register your concern, please consider following the Mercy Campaign and signing their petition for clemency. They are highly organised and refusing to give up hope. Also, Australia’s parliamentarians are united on this, which is all the hen’s teeth you need.