Our own new eyes

It is not known if the blind young person who begged Leo Echegaray for his eyes got his wish, but there are indications that the Filipino people may be creating new eyes with which to see themselves.  I do not know how many would-be rapists Leo Echegaray’s execution will deter.   But my own personal hope is that from hereon, it will not be as easy for us as a nation to kill another human being.

Most certainly, there are more Filipinos who believe that Echegaray deserved to die than those who think that he might have been innocent or, if guilty, deserved only life imprisonment.   And indeed, if a public opinion poll were to be conducted today, I am sure that advocates of the death penalty would continue to outnumber those who oppose it.  Yet, I am hopeful that a rethinking of our beliefs has begun.  The discussion is far from finished.  We have not had such a passionate moral debate in our country in a long time.

I think that it is a sure sign that moral distress has seeped into our bones when song becomes the battleground for conflicting beliefs. The debate, it will be recalled, first opened in the contested fields of penology and sociology, and the question was whether the death penalty deterred criminality.  Then it moved to theology and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the issue was whether anyone but God had the moral right to take a person’s life.

But as the execution drew near, music became the final arena, and two songs — one for “Baby” written by Sen. Tito Sotto, and one for Leo written by the No Bail Band – expressed and resolved for many their views on the death penalty. This is clear proof that such debates are won, in the final analysis, not by lawyers and philosophers and their cool logic, but by songwriters and poets and their clever metaphors.

Beliefs, said William James, are but habits of action.  They are customary ways of thinking that, over time, prove congenial to our purposes and our needs.  They are not, as they often seem to be, accurate representations of the world as it “really” is.  As our needs change, so do our habits of action.  Old ways of thinking are unable to get us to where we want to go, so we try seeing the world with different eyes.

It is so with the way punishment has evolved over the centuries.  For a long time, the human body was the object of punishment.  Murderers were quartered and their limbs were pulled apart in different directions by horses.  Criminals were chained onto prison walls, or their necks and wrists were locked in wood to immobilize them.  The ball and chain attached to the legs of a prisoner remains to this day an abiding image of the jailbird.

But these restraints and modes of corporal punishment have long gone out of fashion in modern societies.  The mind has replaced the body as the site of control and discipline.  The illusion of continuous surveillance has replaced the ball and chain.  And programs of rehabilitation during incarceration have replaced judicial executions. New institutional arrangements brought into being by emergent social needs created their own concepts of what it is to be human.

I have a strong feeling that our own society is at the threshold of such a change.  There was no pervasive disagreement over the execution of the rapists of Maggie de la Riva a quarter of a century ago.  Nor was there any hint of a debate over the death of the drug lord Lim Seng by firing squad during Martial Law.  The death penalty was taken for granted as a wise and just way of dealing with particular types of criminals.  It is no longer so today.

With the return of national self-esteem in 1986, our collective eyes were focused on the need to rebuild our institutions from the ruins of distrust and cynicism.  Having peacefully rid ourselves of a dictatorship, we were confident that our destiny lay completely in our hands. This social hope found eloquent expression in the 1987 Constitution, which reserved no place for the death penalty on its pages except as a last recourse that Congress may restore to address an urgent situation.

The process of national recuperation has not been easy however.

Poverty continues to be the bane of the vast majority of our people. The strength of the Filipino family is tested everyday by the pull of overseas work.  We have been unable to prosecute crimes committed by the old regime.  High crimes have gone unpunished, and the credibility of our police and justice system has sunk to an all-time low. Every election has only paved the way for the restoration of the old elite, and the further exclusion of the underprivileged.

In such a context do we now seek quick fixes for our demoralization and growing impatience.  By refusing to show any hesitation in executing a condemned man, we try to project the kind of toughness that our laws seem to lack.  We brandish the ultimate weapon of death in order to frighten offenders who take our laws lightly.  We attempt to cure our despair by a dramatic show of decisiveness.

But we cannot begin to repair our damaged institutions nor restore our low self-esteem as a nation by scaring our people with the death penalty. To do so is to see the world and ourselves with obsolete eyes.  Human beings are subject to all kinds of contingencies, not the least of which are those that spring from degrading poverty. The role of governments is to establish institutions that will enable all of its citizens to develop their full capacities.  It is a role whose fulfillment rests not just on knowledge but on a lot of hope.


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