The ones who walk away from Davao
I can’t help thinking of Omelas whenever I hear someone describing Davao City as a utopia. Omelas is the fictional city in Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which won the Hugo Award for best science fiction short story in 1974.
In the story, Le Guin describes a city so ideal that it might as well be from a fairy tale. So why would anyone walk away from such a perfect place, as the story’s title suggests?
Because for Omelas to remain peaceful and prosperous, the city requires that an innocent child be perpetually tortured in a locked room with no window. All the people of Omelas know it is there—the room, the torture, the child. They know that their health and happiness depend on the child’s misery.
Most who see the child for the first time go home in anger and agony. But after some time, they accept the terms of Omelas: happiness for thousands in exchange for the suffering of one.
But some don’t go home at all. They walk away from the torture room and keep walking away, alone, to a place that is not Omelas.
* * *
Rodrigo Duterte’s supporters would probably object to this analogy. For starters, they’d argue, Davao does not torture innocent children. The victims of the infamous Davao Death Squad (DDS) are all guilty criminals who deserve to die.
Much has been written about why this is not true. Human Rights Watch has investigated a number of cases where the victims were unintended targets—“victims of mistaken identity, unfortunate bystanders, and relatives and friends of the apparent target.” According to Human Rights Watch, there were 16 such victims documented from 1998 to 2008.
Even when the DDS kills its intended victims, the lack of due process or even basic police work makes it likely that many of these alleged criminals are actually innocent. In the same 10-year period, there was no information on the victims’ involvement in crime in more than half of the cases (54 percent, or 363 victims).
So the 16 definitely innocent victims and the 363 potentially innocent victims up to 2008 should be enough to make the Omelas analogy fair.
But I’ll go even further. I’ll argue that most of the victims who are guilty of their crimes are more innocent than most think.
* * *
In most of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the victims were involved in small-scale drug dealing, drug use, petty crimes, and gang membership. Aside from being male, most of the victims had two other things in common: They were young and poor.
According to a 2000 study by Tambayan and some other children’s rights groups, most gang members in Davao come from urban-poor families and 81 percent of them are out of school. But they’re out of school not because they or their parents chose delinquency instead of education. Their parents just couldn’t afford to pay tuition.
When DDS supporters think of delinquents and criminals, they typically imagine people who make bad choices because they are evil, not because they are poor.
Thus, they justify summary executions from their privileged perspective: “If I were poor, I’d find a way to make an honest living. I’d find healthy outlets to vent my frustrations and avoid joining gangs and becoming a drug addict.”
They underestimate the reality of poverty—the difficulty of having few good choices, or none at all. Even when their idea of poverty is closer to the truth, they make another mistake. When they imagine themselves in a situation of poverty, they assume that they’d be living with exactly the same brain.
But as studies have repeatedly shown, poverty does not simply rob people of choices; it also makes their brains more prone to making bad ones.
In March 2015, a study by Mike Males of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco showed that it was poverty, not youth, that was most to blame for violent teenage crimes. Previously, people blamed teenage biology—underdeveloped brains, lack of discipline or self-control, etc.—for reckless behavior.
But when Males studied the data, he found that financially secure teenagers behaved as responsibly as stereotypical adults, while poor adults behaved as recklessly as stereotypical teenagers. It wasn’t lack of maturity that encouraged crime; it was simply lack of money. According to Males, “young people do not ‘age out’ of crime, they ‘wealth out.’”
How badly does poverty affect the brain? According to a 2013 study published in the journal Science, it’s equivalent to losing 13 IQ points, comparable to the difference between a normal adult and a chronic alcoholic.
This revises the conventional thinking that people are to blame for their poverty because they keep making bad decisions. Rather, poverty overwhelms people who experience it, affecting the quality of their decisions.
Unfortunately, some of these decisions involve crime. But I hope that by now, crime—especially those committed by the poor, young delinquents of Davao—is seen in its proper context. Not only are they victims of the DDS, they are also victims of poverty, of circumstances that are outside their control. They deserve compassion, not blame, and they certainly don’t deserve death for a situation for which we’re all partly responsible.
* * *
So what should be done?
The dynamics of crime and poverty are complex and complicated, systemic and systematic. Finding a solution to match the problem is hard enough, and implementing it will surely be harder. It will require an upheaval of our economic, political and social institutions. Such a process will probably require the cooperation of the government and civil society—every Filipino—an undertaking that could take decades, if not centuries.
Or we could just kill poor criminals and fix everything in three to six months.
Red Tani is the founder and president of the Filipino Freethinkers.
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