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Keep him away from children

I don’t know who arranges President Duterte’s public appearances, but they should follow a new guideline: Keep him away from children.

Admitting he was keeping his careless tongue in check because he was in front of a juvenile audience, the President was obviously uncomfortable keeping his extemporaneous remarks fit for a general audience. Clearly, he had no idea how to keep the youngsters interested or entertained without his usual verbal props of insults and putdowns, aimed especially at his critics and political enemies, sound bites that usually elicit laughter and hoots from appreciative audiences.

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So our fearless leader resorted to an old and tired trope: the war against drugs. Obviously, he had only one solution in mind for this menace against which he has invested the vast resources of government. And that is violence.

He even challenged the boys and young men (and the adults with them) to “serve” the country either by joining the police or enlisting in the military and prepare to sacrifice themselves in going after drug users and traffickers. When the Boy Scouts proved largely unresponsive, he had to prompt them again, saying he “needed” soldiers because the country lacked military personnel to fly airplanes or operate tanks. When the Boy Scouts still reacted tepidly, he upped the ante, saying he planned to revive the once-mandatory ROTC at the college level. Still, blank stares from his guests.

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The boys proved to be the wiser party in this dud of an exchange. Although TV reporters seemed to go out of their way to find the few Scouts who said they had been “inspired” to give a career in the military or police a try, it’s clear the boys weren’t ready to plan their futures yet, or else the President’s rant against criminality and drugs went over their heads.

Despite his self-proclaimed resolution to keep things light and decent before his young audience, Mr. Duterte still couldn’t help hitting his enemies, in particular Liberal Party president Sen. Kiko Pangilinan.

It was Pangilinan’s fault, the President said, that there are today rising incidents of crimes being committed by juveniles, such that we have today a generation of “people with criminal minds.” Pangilinan is the principal author of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act which prevents the arrest and detention of young people “in conflict with the law.”

While the law was being debated, Pangilinan and most child welfare agencies noted the growing number of children (those aged below 15) growing up behind bars. The great majority of them were being held for petty crimes, such as stealing, and while behind bars were then being “schooled” in the world of criminality since they were mixed in with adult hardened criminals.

Mr. Duterte blamed the senator for being “in a hurry” to pass the law and thus producing what he said were “generations” of young law breakers, many of them being exploited by gangs who knew their young accomplices would not be going to jail.

In response to such concerns, the President and his allies in Congress are rushing the passage of a bill that would lower the age of criminal liability to nine years. This means that even preteens would now be liable to arrest, trial and a jail term.

Was the President aware that most of his Boy Scout audience belonged to the cohort of youths under threat by this proposed law? Did he even read studies showing the value of rehabilitation for young people, especially if their families undergo training and values orientation to turn around the lives of these wayward youth?

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Apparently, in Mr. Duterte’s mind, the only way to fight criminality and promote social amity is to create a climate of fear, put people, even children, under a cloud of hopelessness and helplessness. I shudder at the thought of what lasting impressions the President’s words and presence created in the tender minds of his young audience.

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