Rumors that he ran a death squad to crack down on crime when he was mayor of Davao City has hounded President Duterte for years.
His campaign threats to fatten the fish in Manila Bay with the corpses of drug users might have hinted at his atavistic instincts for solving social problems, but his allies and supporters have typically dismissed such talk as the usual braggadocio of a tough-talking politico.
Last week, Mr. Duterte once again seems to have confirmed killing as a preferred policy, when he announced that he was forming his own hit squads to deal with communist rebels or sympathizers.
“I will create my own Sparrow,” the President said, referring to the New People’s Army’s (NPA) unit that targeted police, military and government officials in urban areas during the 1980s.
“(The death squads) will do nothing but look for idlers who are prospective (NPA) members and take them out,” the President said, adding that his instructions to the “Duterte Death Squad”—armed civilians not from the community, to be posted in public places like transport terminals — would be “to get one or two” rebels.
Critics and horrified observers were quick to denounce Mr. Duterte’s plan for a presidential team of assassins, calling it downright illegal.
It is more than that. It is a reprehensible, utterly unacceptable idea, one that should never be legitimized in a society that calls itself, or aspires to be, democratic and governed by the rule of law.
Mr. Duterte’s announcement came barely a week after he had issued Memorandum Order No. 32, which deployed additional police and military forces in Samar, Negros Island and the Bicol Region to deal with what Malacañang described as “lawless violence.”
The monumental irony in the President’s death-squad proposition, however, is that it is the very definition of lawless violence — men empowered to act above, or to arrogate unto themselves, the law.
How would these vigilantes go about their job targeting loiterers, “prospective” NPA recruits and just about anybody they suspect of being a communist sympathizer?
Would psychic powers be a qualification to join such a force, for the killers to divine which Filipinos are wont to harbor sentiments and ideas deemed undesirable by this administration?
The appalling implications of the President’s words were typically lost on presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, who said civilians should even be “relieved” that such a hit squad meant to defend soldiers and civilians from communist violence is being considered. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, meanwhile, tried to explain them away as signature Duterte hyperbole: “We should always understand that kind of statement to mean: Use reasonable force to apprehend suspected assassins.”
Like-minded people, however, unsurprisingly seemed to know exactly what the President meant.
Former police chief and now senatorial aspirant Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa came out swinging for Mr. Duterte’s proposal, on the grounds that “’Yung mga NPA lang ba ang puwedeng sige, patay nang patay ng government troops? ’Di ba unfair ’yan? So ang gobyerno maghanap din ng paraan para makabawi din sa kanila ’di ba… Tagal na ’yung problema natin sa insurgency na ’yan dahil palaging nakatali ’yung kamay natin (Isn’t it unfair that only the NPAs are allowed to kill government troops? The government must have a way to get back at them. We’ve had an insurgency problem for so long because our hands are tied).”
Alas, the only thing revealed by Dela Rosa’s remarks, aside from his unqualified loyalty to his boss, is how, even after formal education and years of experience in the police force, he has apparently yet to grasp a fundamental principle: that the entire rubric of law and regulation and protocol that supposedly ties the hands of the police is what makes them officers of the law in the first place.
Dela Rosa is not a cop because of his gun, but because of his badge — the symbol of the state authority that deputizes him as an enforcer of the law.
Without the rule of law behind him to justify his use of a gun, he would be no different from a bandit — or, for that matter, from the prospective gang of hitmen he’s now championing unthinkingly.
How many more cops and men with guns may end up seduced by the siren call of impunity from on high?
Caloocan City Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr., who recently convicted three policemen for the murder of teenager Kian delos Santos, has a stark warning for the government and his fellow Filipinos in his decision: “A shoot first, think later attitude can never be countenanced in a civilized society.”
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