Last November 23 was the fourth anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre and it passed almost unnoticed, given that everyone was thinking more about relief and rehabilitation work.
But I thought I’d relate that massacre to the disaster brought about by “Yolanda” and to our everyday lives outside the disaster areas. I will share a personal incident as well to highlight this linkage.
I’m referring here to impunities, the Ampatuan massacre representing one extreme with 58 victims (including 34 journalists and media workers) killed, all part of a convoy on its way to file the certificate of candidacy of a politician. On the other end of the scale for impunity, we have the reports of looting in the aftermath of Yolanda, the incidents varying from what one might call petty theft to large vehicles being used to cart off food and medicines.
It is important not to overlook even the “mildest” of cases, especially when we encounter them in our own lives. In fact, people teaching ethics might well use the incidents around Yolanda to get students to think about the broader contexts of ethical and unethical behavior.
But first let’s look at what this impunity is. Unesco Philippines and the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication published a book last year—titled “Crime and Unpunishment” and edited by Florangel Rosario Braid, Crispin Maslog and Ramon Tuazon—that looked into the assassination of media workers. I contributed an essay where I pointed out that there is no word in Filipino for “impunity.” The English and the Spanish (la impunidad) are not widely used either. We know what it is, but can’t quite pin it down with one word. More or less, impunity is doing something because you know you won’t be caught, or if you do get caught, you won’t be punished.
I am beginning to talk now with people from Tacloban and getting first-hand reports about the looting. There is ambivalence in the stories being told. On one hand, people are justifying the looting by saying that they waited, Day 1, Day 2—and by Day 3, still with no word from government officials, they felt they had to act on their own. Some were reluctant, but when they saw stores being ransacked, they figured they might as well join in because there were no police, no military, no government.
What’s intriguing is that the same persons justifying the looting by citing government neglect were also resentful of other people they saw, with a tendency to say these were “outsiders,” complete with descriptions about their being “dark,” with “dyed hair.”
It will take time to gather more reports and figure out just what happened there, but notice how we tend to justify our own impunities and amplify things done by others. It’s a way of saying we are still moral because our acts are small compared to these other people, whoever they are.
Impunity involves unequal power relations. We tend to justify our acts of impunity because it’s all we can get away with. I wrote some time back about the terrible plight of security guards as they try to get cars to stop so someone can cross the street, or for a vehicle to come out of a subdivision. I’ve seen vehicles screeching to a halt within a few inches of the guard, and these are still good guys compared to those who will just swerve around the guard and speed on, never mind that there’s a yellow traffic box, or the pedestrian lanes painted on the street, never mind that you could kill the guard, and the elderly person he’s trying to help across the street.
Stop some time to watch the guards and you’ll see that even jeepney drivers have no respect for the guards, and they are people of the same class. But the jeepney drivers will slow down a bit. The impunity grows with private vehicles: the larger, the more arrogant, some of them even speeding up as they approach the guard, a way of telling the latter, “Move aside because I am not stopping.”
Now for a personal encounter. Last Saturday at around 9:30 p.m., I drove into a street in San Juan and was aghast to see a white sedan speeding toward me. It was a one-way street and the driver was going the wrong way, high beam on. I realized that the driver had no intention of stopping, and I thought the vehicle would ram into mine. But right before we would have collided, the car took a sharp turn into a driveway, honking away.
I was stunned and thought of stepping down to confront the driver, and then I realized the driveway belonged to an ex-congressman known for his terrible temper. I knew it would be too risky to confront the driver, whoever he/she was. I was furious, though, especially because my son was with me on the front seat, but he was the one who calmed me down, nervously laughing as he said, “Boy, he really needed to go, huh?” (He used a more graphic Filipino phrase, “Mukhang ta— ta- na”).
So maybe the driver had nothing to do with the congressman and was just going to park the car and, well, needed to go. Who knows? But I have a strong feeling there was impunity there, and next time around, someone might not be as fortunate as I was.
Impunity has two sides. There’s a person doing what he/she wants to do and never mind if it’s right or wrong. Then there’s the other side, of the law, or rules, or standard ethical considerations, not likely to be implemented because the person wronged is not in the position to get justice.
I realized only the day after that encounter with the “hound from hell” that it happened on the anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre. Earlier that day I was at a conference on Andres Bonifacio and suddenly I could relate to all the discussions about how Filipinos in Bonifacio’s time felt oppressed, which isn’t just a matter of being physically abused. The worst kind of oppression comes from a feeling of being subjected to one injustice after another, and not being able to do anything about it. Someone at the Bonifacio conference pointed out that “himagsikan,” our word for “revolt,” is derived from “bagsik,” of “to be fierce.”
Impunity is about entitlements. I heard stories of people making off with TV sets, and one of them justified this by saying he could trade the TV set later for food, if no aid ever came. We start with small impunities, rationalized by distorted entitlements (I need this for my family; I need this for the future). And the more power we have, the more distorted those entitlements become, perhaps in the case of that white car’s driver (This is my street; why the hell did they have to make it one way?) or in Mayor Ampatuan’s case (How can this upstart even dare to run against me?).
Impunities grow, one feeding into the next: He got away with it, so maybe I can too. Impunity is intergenerational as well. When we step on the gas as we approach a security guard, we’re telling our children in the car: You can do this as well someday because these guards are powerless.
And the Ampatuan massacre? The longer it drags on, the greater the chance that we will have another massacre of that magnitude.
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