The Duterte dilemma
I remember first reading the story in Tagalog, probably in Pilipino Komiks. A colony of fiercely independent frogs fought bitterly among themselves because no one was willing to give way to another. Unable to agree on anything, the colony could not progress. Finally, they appealed to Bathala to send them a leader to establish law and order and consensus. Bathala responded by sending them a log.
Initially impressed by the size and weight of the log, the frogs later discovered that it was also inert and incapable of controlling conflict and violence. They pleaded with Bathala to send them a more decisive leader. Bathala sent them a crocodile, which quickly imposed consensus by eating those who disagreed with its decrees. The frogs rushed back to Bathala, begging him to recall the crocodile. But Bathala made them live with what they had prayed for.
This tale came from the collection of fables attributed to Aesop, a Greek storyteller of the seventh century BC, who used them to teach moral lessons. The fable of the crocodile king acknowledged that, without a leader, unbridled individualism can block a community’s progress and prosperity. But submitting to a leader without regard for individual autonomy risked the loss of rights and lives.
Since Aesop’s time, humanity has been trying to learn the right balance between individual autonomy and social order. The issue confronts us again.
Mayor Rodrigo Duterte brings to the presidential race a reputation as a “strong” leader, quick to apprehend, judge and “neutralize” drug dealers. Many voters, wearied and worried by the pattern of criminals prospering unpunished, have found Duterte’s “decisiveness” admirable. Who wants a weak, indecisive leader?
Here is our Duterte dilemma: To control impunity, should we entrust power to someone suspected of abusing official powers with impunity? Former Commission on Human Rights chair Leila de Lima had conducted investigations on extrajudicial killing of criminals by “death squads” linked to Mayor Duterte.
Unfortunately, the accusations have never resulted in indictments. Duterte, therefore, was never compelled to address conclusively suspicions that he had violated legal and constitutional processes to achieve swift justice.
Duterte has projected the image of an action-oriented, results-driven executive who can address people’s fears about an environment perceived as dominated by criminal elements. In the process, he has broadly, almost boastfully hinted that he had indeed ignored human rights and legal norms, enforcing the law by violating the law.
Because he is now a presidential candidate, Duterte’s self-incriminating statements increase the pressures on the CHR, the Ombudsman’s office and the Department of Justice to fulfill their mandate. How can these agencies ignore hints of capital crimes gone unpunished from one aspiring to lead the country? Especially when, according to De Lima, a whistle-blower has surfaced.
The CHR/Ombudsman/DOJ dilemma is that people do not seem repelled by, or anxious about, the violations of human rights Duterte might have committed. Political operatives will try to discredit their investigations as efforts to influence the elections. Most people are not drug-dealers and cannot imagine that they would ever tangle with Duterte. But we should consider the implications of past impunity on his potential exercise of presidential powers.
Perhaps, Duterte might not have done any killing himself, though he may suggest even this to burnish the Dirty Harry brand. But as mayor, he had people ready and eager to follow his orders. As president, he would have even more people to do his bidding.
According to a newspaper report, Duterte said that, as president, he would allow policemen on duty to kill criminals and would protect them against charges of human rights violations. He also said that the policemen would “go first, should they commit wrongdoings.” He referred to three rogue policemen who were recently killed, but “did not directly respond to the question if he was the one who killed the police officers.”
Duterte is not infallible. Neither are the subordinates on whose information he depends. The execution of policemen who make mistakes offers small comfort to families of the victims. People will make mistakes, but these should not lead to irreversible consequences. Summary executions permit no room to appeal possibly erroneous decisions.
The issue is whether the police should have the power to execute people they arrest on the basis of their suspicions, without due process of law. And, whether mayor or president should have the power, by direct order or by insinuation and promise of protection, to effect these executions.
A future president accustomed to act with impunity places everyone on a slippery slope. Where would Duterte draw the line on crimes he can punish without regard for constitutionally guaranteed human rights?
Aesop’s fable of the frogs cautions us against submitting ourselves to the judicious judgment of the crocodile.
Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. Prof. Rofel Brion’s Tagalog translation of this column and others earlier published, together with other commentaries, are in http://secondthoughts.ph
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.