Too near our doorsteps: guns and the war on drugs
THE SPATE of killings has clearly drawn the divide—on the surface, between the rich and poor, but at the core, between those who have access to firearms and those who don’t. Stories abound, both in mainstream media and around neighborhood sari-sari stores, about people getting killed: some known to have been involved in drugs, others just unfortunate souls. It’s estimated that an average of 10 people die every day, courtesy of the new administration’s “war on drugs.”
The fact that the public is nonchalant about the standard excuse of the killing of suspects—“nanlaban,” or resisted arrest, or tried to grab the lawmen’s firearm—is already cause for alarm. It means that the public accepts the fact that the so-called drug suspects had the capacity and the means to fight back. It means that the public assumes that civilians’ access to firearms is normal.
The reality is that it is. In 2009, the Philippine Center on Transnational Crime declared that “[m]ost private citizens are not qualified to possess firearms. But many citizens, nonetheless, keep unlicensed firearms in the most secret places in their residences… With gunrunning around, firearms can be easily obtained and kept from the eyes of law enforcers.”
The rising lawlessness, criminality, banditry and insurgency, coupled with the inability of law enforcers to address them, create the impression of a chaotic and dangerous society.
Every day, reports on crime and murder hog the headlines. The more gruesome the crime, the more detailed is the report, and the more airtime is devoted to it. This perception of insecurity creates a positive condition for gun possession. A 2009 study by this author in select urban areas—where the majority of the respondents (61 percent) declared that they fear being a victim of crime—supports this observation.
In an ideal society, the best counterbalance to people’s insecurity is the presence and positive performance of the police and other institutions of security. But we are obviously not in an ideal society. What should one do if the very institution that is supposed to maintain security is itself feared to be involved in criminality? It is thus no surprise that a number of civilians consider a gun as their instrument of protection. But a gun is a double-edged instrument. While it serves as a provider of security, the same instrument is also used by lawless elements to pursue their evil ends.
There is obviously a vacuum in public order and law enforcement. While the extent of the drug menace is beginning to unfold, the spate of vigilante “cardboard justice” killings, the lack of palpable public outcry and the seeming stupefied response of the government are clear indications of the paralyzing effect of society’s collective victimhood.
The perception of victimhood is fueled and sustained by certain sensationalist media, which highlight the dichotomized view of “us” versus “them”—with “us” always the “good” and “them” always the “bad,” or the oppressor. The victimization need not be real or based on actual events. It is a self-declared victimhood borne out of the people’s powerlessness in situations that happen around them. It can be the people’s helplessness in everyday traffic, helplessness in the poor public transportation system, or helplessness in the midst of all the bad news.
The problem with this victimhood perception is that it feeds a mentality that dismisses constructive dialogue, turning differences into a battle between good and bad, victim and oppressor. Juxtaposing the victimhood perception with the administration’s war on drugs, the public seems to have a tacit acceptance of the fate of these “evils of society”: Better get rid of them before they victimize us.
This view is so raw, so primal, that while it is not clearly observable on the surface, one can sense it—in conversations, in comments in social media, in commentaries, in the public’s seeming conspiracy of silence over the spate of killings. Never mind that the war on drugs yields an average of 10 dead persons per day, for as long as it can make the communities safe again.
The problem, however, of a war not one’s own is that it can go either way. It is those who control the instruments of death who will decide where to bring the war. Those who have guns have the power. They can kill anyone and everyone, and justify the kill with their “cardboard justice”—labels like “addict,” “pusher” or “holdaper,” haphazardly written on cardboard and left on or beside the corpses of the victims to silence the public. No one knows if it’s true; the dead cannot defend themselves.
We, the bystanders and coconspirators of this war, with our deliberate silence, can one day become victims. While we collectively rejoice, albeit silently, that the supposed scum of the earth are being mowed down, are we sure that we will not fall victim to “mistaken identity”? What if an envious neighbor concocts malicious stories about us—who will defend us if we have already accepted vigilante justice as the filler in the law enforcement vacuum?
How many deaths will be enough for us to say “Enough!”?
Remember that the Holocaust happened with a few dead Jews per day, and that at the end of the war in 1945, 6 million Jews were found to have been killed. The Holocaust happened because people chose to be silent. When will we speak out?
Jennifer Santiago Oreta, PhD, is assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University, and board chair of the Security Reform Initiative.
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