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Not exactly a morality play

As we watched the quirky twists and turns of Renato Corona’s impeachment trial, we sensed unfolding before us not exactly a morality play, where the good and the bad are clearly delineated, but a bad telenovela where moral rot contaminates all the actors.

On one side are the prosecutors, squirming over revelations that the list of 45 properties allegedly owned by Corona and released to the media was grossly exaggerated and unfairly misleading. Earlier, a congressman had testified that the administration employed the proverbial carrot and stick by delaying the release of his pork barrel.

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On the other side is the defense, who cleverly fudged issues by majoring on minors: leading the charge in going after red herrings, such as the relentless questioning on the means by which the prosecution had acquired Corona’s bank records, and raising a host of technicalities that tended to muddle or obscure the issue at hand.

The seasoned defense counsel Serafin Cuevas, with his agile wits about him, alternately dazzles and grates. It is as if one were watching a performance akin to the amoral brilliance of Lucifer at work.

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The senator-judges, with the sterling exception of some, evoke the sinking feeling that we are governed by morally obtuse political animals. Most are out to merely score points, at the expense of hapless witnesses who happen to be small enough to taunt. Much is made out of minor slip-ups, obviously to gain mileage from the sloppiness of a maladroit prosecution team with an incorrigible tendency to shoot itself in the foot.

One lady stands out from the motley gallery of mostly faded actors and recycled faces from discredited regimes. There are senators who have morphed into respectable mavens with just the right amount of gravitas to convince us of their rightness as judges. But the lady does not seem to have grown out of her schoolmarm juvenilia, with her flashy displays of textbook law, her shrill fits of temper, and browbeating lectures.

At the center of it all is, of course, the big elephant in the room—a Chief Justice shamelessly installed through unlawful maneuverings. The deed was done through both the patron and the appointee’s utter lack of a normal sense of delicadeza. Ostensibly for the independence of the court and against one-man rule, the chief magistrate stages an unseemly “people power,” masking by this a grasping hold on power.

One way that evil misleads is to distort things out of proportion. Important issues get waylaid by diverting attention to minor ones.

The Philippine Savings Bank defied the rules of the impeachment court by asking the Supreme Court to intervene. Yet the senator-judges allowed this to get past them. Private prosecutor Vitaliano Aguirre covered his ears so as not to hear the oppressive harangue of a senator-judge. He was taken to task for contempt of court. So was Harvey Keh, whose main fault was putting the presiding officer on the spot—an error in judgment that sprang perhaps from an over-reliance on the persuasive power of publicity.

Still, these misdemeanors pale in comparison with unexplained bank accounts whose sums far exceed demonstrable income—a case clear as daylight as laid before us by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales. And then there is the use of the chief magistrate’s considerable power to tilt court decisions toward a patent bias—unaccountably recalling decisions already made final and executory, and facilitating the exit of the former President through the posthaste issuance of a temporary restraining order. All these, topped by sordid tales of money-grabbing, intimidation and oppression of one’s own relatives.

It is expected that the defense panel can stitch together a story that cleverly shows all these to be a product of a well-orchestrated smear campaign that will not stand scrutiny. It is possible to put together a tightly argued case made out of technicalities, with all the holes seamlessly covered. Experience shows that those on the side of evil are usually strong, and those on the side of good are often weak and vulnerable.

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It is in the nature of evil to be without small faults, no obvious flaws that one can readily put a finger on. We can all smell the putrid smoke rising from the bottomless pit, but when the cloud clears, we are left wondering if it were something we merely imagined.

Nevertheless, beneath the surface correctness, one feels the slimy tentacles of a circle of contamination that seems to have engulfed all who are caught in the great web of corruption that surrounds the Arroyos.

Concededly, neither are the accusers angels. Some are, at best, dark knights of justice, their motives shadowed by entanglements with parties of known interests.

But this is not a reason for disillusioned people to get cynical, to sink into apathy and indifference as to the outcome of this trial.

The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked that good guys and bad guys belong to the movies. “In real life, there are no heroes or villains, only men.”

Certainly, we are all flawed human beings, whichever side we are on. But this is a moral universe; there is such a thing as goodness and badness, however these are defined by societies. And when the opportunity presents itself, one has the potentially historic choice to be on the side of good or on the side of evil.

This is the choice that now confronts our senator-judges.

Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and head of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture. E-mail her at [email protected]

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TAGS: chief justice renato corona, Commentary, corona impeachment, Melba Padilla Maggay, opinion
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