Back to barbarisms
Edgar Matobato’s initial revelations in the Senate hearing on extrajudicial killings, while not without minor lapses, nevertheless stands as a grim witness to the brutal pattern with which this administration goes about its business of cleaning up society.
Conscious of the political implications, Sen. Alan Cayetano quickly cast aspersions on the witness’ motives. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III dismissed his allegations as irrelevant and refused him protection. Showing clearly where their political loyalties lie, 16 senators swiftly moved to oust Sen. Leila de Lima as chair of the Senate committee on justice and human rights.
While at pains to discredit the witness, these senators have put their offices to use to contain the damage of this first-hand account of a confessed former member of the Davao Death Squad. In spite of efforts to keep these vigilantes in the shadows, the gruesome murder and mayhem underneath the facade of peace and order in Davao now has a face. Proof of its threat is the way immense powers are now being brought to bear on it.
Contrary to Pimentel’s dismissal of Matobato’s testimony as irrelevant, what was said has everything to do with establishing the fact that behind the rising body count in the current war on drugs is a disturbing pattern—an unwritten policy and habit—of short-cutting judicial processes. Worse, it suggests that this nation’s leadership is not above using police power and authority to eliminate not just criminals, but also oppositionists.
Many in this country mistake President Duterte’s unswerving use of force as political will, when what is really before us is an alarming drift toward an authoritarian barbarism, where the full apparatus of power—formal or nonformal—are used to savage those who stand in his way, without regard for law or the niceties of civility.
Quite early, the telltale signs are there. There is the reiterated permission to shoot and kill, which effectively gives license to all, in uniform or out, to serve as judge and executioner and set off on a killing spree. There is the rough and heavy-handed treatment of the Chief Justice, who was threatened with martial law when she dared question his jurisdiction over the justices publicly named in his hit list of supposed coconspirators. And then there is the ongoing saga of a senator of the realm being hounded and subjected to all sorts of harassment, her personal life crudely exposed to public shame, in what looks like a deliberate ploy to cast a chilling effect on all who would stand him down.
There is method to this apparently mad and outrageous violation of the boundaries of our legal and cultural norms.
Mr. Duterte is often quoted as saying he knows the law. This he knowingly sidesteps, ostensibly because of frustration over the slow grind of the wheels of justice in this country. Part of his high approval rating is the depth of rage, shared by many, against the dysfunction and inutility of our institutions.
In his name-and-shame campaign, he has proven to be a shrewd and masterful player in that more capacious space afforded by what anthropologists call the informal domain, where the influence of power, privilege and sheer personality can overrun formal processes and bend the rules.
In normal societies, the technical, formal and informal domains of social behavior are of equal space and weight. In this country, the power of the informal domain is such that legal technicalities are summoned, not to shed light on the law, but to serve the demolition purposes of the powerful. Institutional checks and balances collapse before the pressures of that invisible web of interlocking interests bonded by political and familial loyalties.
It is perhaps not just coincidence that within months of the Duterte presidency, we see the resurgence of unsavory forces rumored to be partly behind his ascendancy. We see the irony of the principals accused in the NBN-ZTE scandal going scot-free, while the poor whistle-blower is convicted of graft. We see the ever-present danger of a return to power of an unrepentant dynasty whose patriarch was a plundering dictator and is now being foisted on us as a hero. By this attempt to erase from memory the terrors wrought under his regime, the country is under threat of a permanent historical amnesia.
These historic reversals, overshadowed by the spectacle of vigilante killings, are in fact more dangerous. While there is blustering talk about fighting corruption and an unjust system, we are in fact experiencing an increasing moral rot in the very fabric of our society. There is a subtle overturning of our values, a corrosion of our civic sense of what is just and decent and acceptable. As a sign of this creeping contamination, we just need to take a look at how those once honorable senators voted to oust De Lima as justice committee chair.
The press release about Mr. Duterte is that he is a lovable rake with a soft heart. The cultivated image is that of a rough and tough probinsyano who is refreshingly unlike those who have held the highest office in the land. He is popular precisely because he rides roughshod over the rules of an effete elite culture that has ruled us so ineffectually for so long.
Matobato’s testimony, however, reveals a very dark underside. It validates the fear that at the center of power in this country is a man who is morally obtuse. The coarse language, the recklessly compulsive outbursts directed at the Pope, the US ambassador and the US president himself are but the tip of the iceberg. Scripture tells us that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” What this means is that speech mirrors our state of heart, a verbal reflex of what is inside, displaying the quality of our soul. Bad language is not just bad manners.
In each of us is a Jekyll and Hyde, a goodness and a badness. Often, when given tremendous power, we get reckless and it is the bad side that wins. No, Mr. Duterte is not a“dark knight of justice,” as some say. That happens only in Batman movies.
Melba Padilla Maggay, PhD, is a social anthropologist. She is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture and of Micah Global.