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Looking Back

Targeting children, then and now

/ 05:24 AM January 25, 2019

To the complaint that Filipinos have short memories and do not appreciate our history, I must add that the real problem is not in the remembering, which is itself a creative act, but in the inability to see or make connections between the past and the present.

For example, nobody seems to have connected the proposed lowering of the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 years of age to the Philippine-American War, to the return of the Balangiga bells, to the infamous order of US Gen. Jacob Hurd Smith to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness.” It was Smith who ordered the killing of all males capable of bearing and using arms against them. When asked for the age limit, Smith pegged it at 10.

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A chilling cartoon by Homer Davenport that appeared in the May 5, 1902, issue of the New York Journal depicts four skinny, dark-skinned and blindfolded boys lined up before a firing squad. An officer on the right has a raised saber indicating the fate that would befall the boys seconds later. On top of the cartoon is the heading that screams: “Kill everyone over ten!—Gen. Jacob H. Smith.” The caption below reads: “Criminals because they were born ten years before we took the Philippines.” All these appear below the shield and the Stars and Stripes, but in place of the bald eagle that often accompanies these symbols of America, the cartoonist drew a vulture. Not even a bird of prey, but one that picks on the remains of the dead.

We were all played by the House. They shocked everyone by announcing the lowering of criminal responsibility to 9 so that people would be more accepting of the final version that set the age at 12. My favorite nephew is 14; he towers over all of us at 6 feet and 2 inches, I think, because he overdosed on Cherifer and Star margarine. He may look like an adult, but when I observe him at play, I realize he is still a boy. Knowing what our justice system is like, I can’t even imagine how he will be warped beyond repair in our prison system. I imagine him being shot by the enemy in Samar after the Balangiga massacre, because he looks like someone who could bear arms.

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Jacob Smith’s orders came to light when Marine Maj. (later promoted to general) Littleton W.T. Waller faced a court-martial for the killing of 11 Filipino baggage carriers who mutinied—all of them young men, perhaps a few boys. Of the many lines of defense he took, one of them that an army court-martial had no jurisdiction over a Marine, he claimed he was merely following orders. And it was here that Smith was quoted to have said: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.”

Waller then asked: “I would like to know the limit of age to respect, sir.”

“Ten years,” Smith replied.

“Persons of 10 years and older are those designated as being capable of bearing arms?” Waller asked.

“Yes,” Smith said, confirming his instructions.

Waller was acquitted, but his testimony during the court-martial was later used against Smith, who initially denied giving the orders, but was forced to admit when confronted with other witnesses who heard him give the infamous orders. Following his court-martial, which convicted him—not for specific acts in Samar and the Philippine-American War but for “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline”—Smith was forced to retire. He was given a hero’s welcome in his Ohio hometown when he returned in August 1902. His mother was quoted to have said: “What matters what he said? Look upon what he has done. Look upon a record without a blot or blemish. Then shall we consider a few words spoken when the atrocities to American soldiers were confronting him on every hand.”

History is about many viewpoints, but while one can quibble over opinions, the facts remain: Samar, Balangiga, and the killing of males over 10 years old should resonate not just in our history books and classrooms, because they are lessons paid for with so much suffering, lessons that should remind Congress to protect, rather than trample, the rights of children.

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TAGS: age of criminal liability, Balangiga bells, children, Jacob Smith
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