Island Life by David Slack

Another Hanging

I don't know if Damian wants us to set up a bit of a Crossfire effort here, but I'll take the bait. What's up with the deification of Van Nguyen he asks.

I'd say: identification.

I don't identify with trying to sneak 400 grams worth of death sentence through Singapore, but I look at the picture of a young guy and I remember being that young. I don't identify with risking your life to help out your brother with his gambling debts, but I hear the story and I think of all the ways my brother was willing to bail me out of a jam when I was young and stupid.

Once you've identified with the subject of the story, you take more interest. It's not necessarily logical or rational, but it's how we tend to deal with the world and its news.

That's how we deal with the notion that several thousand children will die of starvation on any given day, while we go about our comfortable lives.

That's how we deal with the apparent illogicality of extensive coverage of an earthquake that kills perhaps ten people in the USA in comparison to the attention given to a flood or earthquake that kills several thousand in some more remote third world country.

If it becomes part of our immediate mental neighborhood, we pay more attention. Like politics - as Tip O'Neill is endlessly quoted - all news is local.

So we noticed what was happening to Van Nguyen, and we were drawn into the story.

Even in my natural state of incurable optimism I could see no good outcome for him, and that only amplified the sense of identification, imagining the hopeless, pitiful experience.

I remember when the same thing happened to Barlow and Chambers almost twenty years ago. That got, in my recollection, somewhat more ambivalent coverage here, and I think that was in part because that sense of identification played out a little differently. These were a couple of guys whose photos suggested something more akin to the various characters whose pictures had been splashed across our screens as the Mr Asia story had its pages turned.

Less photogenic, in other words, and should that make a difference? No, and yet it does - the identification is diminished because their image doesn't suggest the innocence that the picture of Van Nguyen does.

Yes, that's really no good basis for a distinction, but I believe we make it anyway. We identify a little more because we see in that young face, whether it's a trick of the eye or not, a less culpable character, and we therefore see him as less different to us than your sterotypical drug runner.

The whole narrative seemed all the more grim to me because I'd watched it unfold with Barlow and Chambers in KL - two guys then about the same age as me - and I'd thought: They'll cave at the last minute. They won't want to cause some international standoff.

But they didn't. I remember going out to the car to listen to the radio at the appointed hour and sure enough, they did it.

Ten or so years later, when I was making a regular trip to KL to run workshops, I went on a tour of the old city jail. I don't like to think that there was any kind of prurient curiosity to it, but perhaps I'm unreasonably ennobling my motivations. In any event, I found to my grim astonishment that the star turn of the exhibit was a presentation that takes you to the small, barren cells where the two men spent their last days, and which walks you along the corridor to the gallows where the Malaysian government made good on its conviction.

In those dismal surroundings, silence might be sufficient, you might think, but in fact there is a soundtrack playing endlessly on a less than five minute loop which builds with the sound of an accelerating heart beat and then the crash of the trapdoor.

So, again: drawn into the story.

I couldn't see a way out for Van Nguyen, and sure enough, there wasn't. It's entirely correct to argue that he is only one of many who have gone this way, and it is equally correct to argue that drugs potentially waste other lives. But taking a life in this way diminishes us, and even if we don't make the same protest in every instance, and even if we have been deluded into seeing Van Nguyen as a less culpable and more moral man than he in fact was, it does nothing to diminish the potency of the two best arguments I turn to any time this subject comes up.

One I appropriated for a black parody the other day - A Hanging by George Orwell. The other is that great old song by Steve Earle, Billy Austin, which runs like this:

My name is Billy Austin
I'm Twenty-Nine years old
I was born in Oklahoma
Quarter Cherokee I'm told
Don't remember Oklahoma
Been so long since I left home
Seems like I've always been in prison
Like I've always been alone
Didn't mean to hurt nobody
Never thought I'd cross that line
I held up a filling station
Like I'd done a hundred times
The kid done like I told him
He lay face down on the floor
guess I'll never know what made me
Turn and walk back through that door
The shot rang out like thunder
My ears rang like a bell
No one came runnin'
So I called the cops myself
Took their time to get there
And I guess I could'a run
I knew I should be feeling something
But I never shed tear one
I didn't even make the papers
'Cause I only killed one man
but my trial was over quickly
And then the long hard wait began
Court appointed lawyer
Couldn't look me in the eye
He just stood up and closed his briefcase
When they sentenced me to die
Now my waitin's over
As the final hour drags by
I ain't about to tell you
That I don't deserve to die
But there's twenty-seven men here
Mostly black, brown and poor
Most of em are guilty
Who are you to say for sure?
So when the preacher comes to get me
And they shave off all my hair
Could you take that long walk with me
Knowing hell is waitin' there
Could you pull that switch yourself sir
With a sure and steady hand
Could you still tell yourself sir
That you're better than I am
My name is Billy Austin
I'm twenty-nine years old
I was born in Oklahoma
Quarter Cherokee I'm


For what it's worth, the song ends with almost the same sound effect as the jail tour in KL.