Turning a blind eye to extrajudicial killings
NO ONE claims to support the killing of the innocent, but it seems that many are willing to leave the judgment of innocence to the police and the vigilantes. Even worse, many are seeing death itself as proof of one’s guilt.
“He must have been a drug pusher,” said some netizens of Emmanuel Jose Pavia, the Ateneo High School teacher who was shot and killed in Marikina.
“They were killed because they deserved it. Kill pa more!” exclaimed one commenter on one of the many reports—now commonplace—on the corpses of suspected drug pushers found in the streets.
We are now faced by one of the most pressing questions of our time: Why are many Filipinos turning a blind eye to the spate of extrajudicial killings?
To begin with, there are people who actually believe that extrajudicial killings are acceptable, even necessary. Held against the perceived corruption in and glacial pace of our justice system—best illustrated by the seven-year-old Maguindanao massacre case—it is difficult to deny that the system has failed us.
Supporters of extrajudicial killings go on to argue that if drug pushers and other criminals are not killed, they’re the ones who will do the killing. “Better for them to die, instead of the truly innocent,” they say. Others add that surely the death of one drug pusher is justified as it will serve as a deterrent to many others, as the mass surrender of drug users nationwide seems to validate.
However, even if we suspend for the moment the question of commensurability—that is, whether death is just punishment for all kinds of drug offenses and other crimes—people who hold this view must, at the very least, face the question: What if the truly innocent get killed? Most people respond with denial: “Surely the police know what they’re doing,” or the now-trite “This is another case of biased media reporting.”
But with mounting reports of cases of mistaken identity, and accounts of people getting killed despite having surrendered—or having clean backgrounds—we must ask: How many innocent lives must be killed to convince people that something’s wrong?
Secondly, there are people—including many of our leaders—who do not agree with the extrajudicial killings but are eager to support the new administration, and would rather focus on its many initiatives, careful not to antagonize President Duterte and his supporters. They may criticize the killings, but do so only privately, or with the most lukewarm of words. They may register their disapproval, but are quick to move on and change the topic.
Finally, there are people who turn a blind eye to the killings because they fear the backlash that a dissenting voice is bound to get, particularly in social media. While we still have freedom of expression, it has been seriously undermined in this age of trolls and haters. The risk of incurring acrimony, and getting inconvenienced with blocked or suspended accounts, is reason enough for people to stay silent, and turn their attention to other, “safer” issues.
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No one wants President Duterte to fail in his war on drugs and crime, but this is exactly why we must not be afraid to speak what we feel about its dreadful—even if unintended—consequences. We cannot afford to waste the promise of this new administration and the hopes it has raised among our people.
The first consequence is the propagation of a culture of violence: that of people growing accustomed to the idea that killing can solve our problems and bring peace and security to our country. This “gospel of death” is a lie: Throughout history, one unchanging truth is that violence only begets more violence. From here on, extrajudicial killings can only spread to target other “undesirables”—the definition of which is once again left to the powers-that-be. Moreover, criminals will only be emboldened to commit more (and more violent) crimes, since there is no way out for them: either to kill or get killed.
The second consequence is the rise of a police state. Without the due process afforded by warrants of arrest and the right to a trial, we are giving too much power to the authorities to decide what is right or wrong—and worse, who gets to live or die. Can we completely trust the police, and even if we do, can we really entrust them with absolute power, knowing that it “corrupts absolutely”? As Mr. Duterte himself has said, not all policemen are clean—in fact, some generals are corrupt—and so the idea that policemen can take justice in their own hands should be unnerving, if not downright repulsive.
But the immediate and most riveting consequence, which is already happening now, is the victimization of innocent lives: of sleeping youths who would never see the light of day; of men and women in the act of surrender; of people whose only crime is to share a name with a drug pusher, or be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Someday, a generation more civilized than us will look back at the victims’ stories and images as proof of our callousness and indict us for a failure of empathy: a failure that will undermine all our triumphs.
These are very grave dangers that should make us rethink our passive stance on this issue. We are a peace-loving society with good people, but as the saying goes, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
There is a better way forward for our nation, a higher road not paved with blood. In the words of Albert Camus, “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.
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