Death, drugs and the Duterte dilemma
MY DAUGHTER Una just had an up-close view of the immediate aftermath of a killing. She and the other passengers of the school bus were on their way home when they saw the dead man slumped on the pavement, head bleeding from an apparent gunshot wound. Though stunned and muttering “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” she was able to take a “snapchat” video.
My basketball buddies later confirmed the incident. A “known addict and possibly pusher” was indeed executed near our village in Antipolo. The description of the victim implied that somehow he had it coming.
I had hoped that our young would not be confronted with grisly spectacles such as this. But this is now wishful thinking as killings have become commonplace. Two weeks ago I saw a roving vehicle in Talisay, Batangas, with a man on a loudspeaker urging addicts and pushers to surrender. The driver told me that already, more than 50 had been killed in their town since the election.
More than 500 and counting: That so far is the national stat, and alarm bells are ringing. But President Duterte insisted in his first State of the Nation Address that “there would be no letup” in the drug campaign, even a doubled, tripled number if needed. “Doblehin… triplehin, kung kinakailangan.”
I’m doubly, triply troubled. This is problematic on so many levels. Much has been said about the inviolability of due process: that anyone accused deserves his/her day in court. We have the appropriate mechanism to ascertain one’s guilt or innocence and, imperfect as it may be, I will always choose it over letting “the man with the gun” (as Chel Diokno puts it) make the decision. But more to this is the reality of the unintended casualty: the bystander hit by a stray bullet or caught in the crossfire, or the unlucky victim of mistaken identity, such as Rowena Tiamson and Roman Manaois in Pangasinan. Sooner or later that person could be you or me, or a loved one.
And then there is the matter of culture. How do we measure the social cost of a people desensitized to murder? Just last week my 10-year-old son Juan asked his mother: “What happened to the five accused generals? Were they killed already?” She had to frantically explain that that is not, or at least should not be, the way it works. He actually just asked as part of a homework related to current events, but the question was obviously informed by the prevalent mood of the times. It is totally disconcerting that our youth’s minds are being molded toward a norm where killing is seen as the default infliction to declared wrongdoers, even before they are tried.
My main difficulty in disagreeing with PDu30 is the fact that, to be fair, there is so much to like about the man. I am one of those fascinated by his effortless charm. And, like the 92 percent supportive Filipinos, I want him to succeed in the priority areas he ticked off in his Sona: full implementation of the Reproductive Health Law; untangling of bureaucratic knots (involving passports, driver’s licenses, business permits, etc.); universalization of healthcare; the official “up yours” pronouncement against the filthy rich, etc.
I am willing to suspend my skepticism on this nebulous notion of federalism and see how it plays out. I hold the same bated-breath anticipation on the peace talks with the Moro and communist rebels. But I remain totally opposed to the reimposition of the death penalty and the lowering of the age of criminal liability from 15 to 9. And, of course, I am against extrajudicial killings—whether in the name of the drug war, counterinsurgency or revolution—as a matter of policy.
I have no doubt that PDu30 can push his policy priorities forward, aided in no small measure by his huge political capital and charisma. It’s a pity that his extraordinary political attributes are not used in pursuit of the very set of values that redefined our nation in its postdictatorship rebirth: human rights.
Imagine if he deploys his powers of persuasion in directing the police to be mindful of due process in the exercise of their duties. What policeman would dare defy a direct order from this president to respect human rights at all times, instead of being assured that he will not “let human rights be used as a shield to destroy our country”? This is the first time I’ve heard of human rights portrayed as a weapon of destruction instead of a tool for protection.
For many years we have exerted all efforts to educate the security forces about human rights: to make them understand that human rights are not their enemy but a guidepost to proper behavior, especially in uncertain situations. We have gained much headway in these efforts. Many in the police and military have fully accepted human rights principles and their practical application. Now all of this is in danger of being erased, nay, reversed, by a presidential declaration practically guaranteeing impunity. “If you kill a criminal, I will protect you.” A policeman friend told me they were actually given a “quota.” Good thing he is spared because he is currently in schooling.
I do want PDu30 to succeed in many of his endeavors, including his efforts to wipe out the drug menace—but not at the expense of more lives. Some would argue that the hundreds killed might have caused the ruin of many more through drugs, anyway. But we may likewise argue that those are hundreds of opportunities to change lost forever. Think of the many former drug addicts now leading exemplary, productive lives.
Studies worldwide have clearly established that a “war on drugs” can never be won. War is simply not the effective approach. There is a higher likelihood of success when drug dependents are not seen as criminals but as human beings who need medical help.
And even if PDu30 succeeds in this quest (which takes a lot of granting, as he admits that the drug lords are abroad and unreachable), it would amount to no more than a Pyrrhic victory.
Robert Francis Garcia is a former undersecretary at the Office of the Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs. He is the author of the award-winning book “To Suffer thy Comrades: How the Revolution Decimated its Own.”