Looking for trouble
By tradition and by institutional design, pronouncements by a president are or amount to policy statements. They are received as binding not only on the chief executive and commander in chief but also on his or her alter egos and other officials of the administration. What, then, do we make of President Duterte’s schizophrenic remarks last Monday, when he told one audience “I am not a killer” and then told another that he “used to do it (that is, kill drug suspects) personally”?
At the recognition rites for The Outstanding Filipinos of 2016, the President struck a sympathetic note. “I am not a killer. I do not relish or enjoy [seeing] a Filipino sprawled [on the street] with all the blood.” To date, over 5,000 “drug personalities” have been killed in the President’s so-called war on drugs since he took office.
Before members of the Wallace Business Forum, however, Mr. Duterte cut a swaggering figure. Acknowledging that at least a third of the killings can be attributed to police officers themselves, he then admitted: “I know it because—I am not trying to pull my own chair—in Davao I used to do it personally. Just to show to the [policemen] that if I can do it, why can’t you?” He added in a mix of English and Filipino: “I go around in Davao [on] a big bike and I would just patrol the streets … looking for trouble. I was really looking for an encounter to kill.”
At the awards ceremony, the President seemed to be wrestling with the gut-wrenching consequences of the killings. But at the meeting with business leaders, he seemed, yet again, to be encouraging more kills, in his war on drugs.
The President’s latest display of what professional communicators would describe as a lack of message discipline had a predictable effect on his political lieutenants and political allies. They ended up staring at the potential consequences of his language—and then justifying it.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre argued that the President was prone to speaking hyperbolically, and harked back to the unorthodox Duterte campaign. “He had said that in the campaign … the President always speaks in hyperbole, always exaggerated, just to put his message across.” But campaigning for office is one thing, governing from the country’s most powerful office is another.
Sen. Richard Gordon, who had earlier called on the President to please not talk too much, recognized one major consequence of the President’s admission: Someone can make a case for impeachment. “If he said that, then maybe he had reason why he said that, and if someone wants to sue him, we will conduct impeachment proceedings,” he said in Filipino. But Gordon knows that impeachment in an era of congressional supermajorities is a long shot. His explanation hints at this political dynamic.
“When he says that, he’s opening himself up, di ba (isn’t that so)? Siya ang nagsabi, e (He himself said it). So [what’s the] legal way, e di mag impeach kayo, mag impeach kung sino man ang may gusto (so go ahead, impeach him, those who want to do so) because I’m sure he knows how to defend that.”
But as the death toll mounts, even the President’s staunchest defenders are no longer using the specious argument that more deaths had been recorded in comparable periods under previous administrations. It is becoming ever clearer that the President’s language—vilifying human rights defenders, attacking individuals or institutions who have criticized the killing spree, inflating the official statistics on drug use, defending the police killers of Mayor Rolando Espinosa even in the face of incontrovertible proof that his death was an execution, and now his personal testimony about personally killing drug suspects in Davao City when he was its mayor to show the local police force how to do what he wanted done—has real life-or-death consequences. In that sense, he really is looking for trouble.
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