Icons of an exhausted nation

The image of newly-appointed DILG Secretary Alfredo Lim and of PNP Chief Panfilo Lacson is that of results-oriented practical men who will not be deterred by legalities in the pursuit of what they think is good for the country.  They are the icons of an exhausted nation.

The wide public approval of the “Dirty Harry” concept of service reflects our people’s growing skepticism about the usefulness of laws and the value of due process.  If we abide by this attitude, it may not be long before we begin to question the wisdom of democracy itself, and to entertain thoughts of a system run by strong ethical men.  The likes of Lim and Lacson are the prototype of such strong leaders. They are seen as no-nonsense “doers” who know the heart of the problem and get things done, and are distinguished from the lawobsessed politicians whose ability to criticize is rarely matched by their capacity to solve problems.

It is not surprising for President Joseph Estrada to champion the approach of the Lims and Lacsons in government .  The “action” approach is consistent with the image that Erap has carefully cultivated through the movies: that of the street-smart hero who cannot be bothered by too much thought.  The emergence of public figures like these three represents the over-compensation of the powerless masses.

What is disturbing, however, is when individuals like Cardinal Sin, who are known to be exemplars of courage and probity, endorse the activities of the “action men.”  The Cardinal admires Secretary Lim so much he has decided to come out on the side of the spray-painters.   I sincerely hope that in doing so, the Cardinal is only expressing the impatience and despair of the public over the drug problem, rather than the moral wisdom of the Church on this question.

At issue here are two basic principles of our legal and political system: one, that a suspect is presumed innocent unless proven guilty by a court of law; and two, that a person cannot be punished except in a manner provided by law.

I heard Secretary Lim discuss on radio the futility of enforcing the  law in a situation where drug pushers can bribe the police or threaten witnesses so that the government usually ends up without evidence or witnesses.  Everyone knows who these pushers are, he claims, but the requirements of the law are so strict that the government is often unable to nail these criminals.

Indeed we may think that criminals so patently evil ought not to enjoy such guarantees, and that the enforcement of due process or the presumption of innocence in their case only thwarts justice and allows them to evade responsibility. But for all the advantage and protection that criminals derive from these basic principles of justice, no one who believes in democracy would seriously propose their abolition.

For what is at stake here is not just the quest for workable solutions to social problems, but the preservation of the certainty and predictability of the law.  The stability of the law is the public’s only defense against the arbitrary exercise of authority.

If we allow the authorities to invent approaches to solving crime without regard for the law, what will stop Secretary Lim from extending his spray-painting campaign to include suspected terrorists, suspected abortionists, and suspected tax-evaders?   If we allow the deployment of Marines for police work, what will stop government from abolishing the police altogether, and making the military double up as police everywhere?

My objections to Secretary Lim’s spray painting is the same objection I have to General Lacson’s fielding of the Marines for police work.  Both solutions dangerously mix different functions in one office. The police who spray paint the homes of persons they have charged as drug pushers take on the role of judge as well.  The deployment of soldiers to police beats is a dangerous militarization of civilian functions.

Strictly speaking, even the containment of insurgency should be a police matter, not the military one it is at present.  That counterinsurgency has been assigned to the military may explain why massive human rights violations have normally accompanied the drive against so-called rebels in our society.  The reason is not that the military are ignorant of human rights; rather, it is that the nature and priorities of military work make them unsuited to deal with political dissidents.

But it is not just the prospective dangers of these unusual solutions that are alarming.  Besides being illegal, they are also simplistic and short-sighted.  They blind us to the real scale of our problems.  The way to solve the drug problem is to go after the big-time syndicates who manufacture and distribute the drugs.  Spray painting the homes of drug pushers may be good publicity for the police, but it does not stop the drug dealers themselves.

Augmenting the police force with soldiers may increase the visibility of law-enforcers and deter criminals in the short-term.  But it will not solve the corruption in police ranks, which is at the root of the police’s losing battle against crime.  To begin to confront criminality requires ridding the police of scoundrels and professionalizing the service.  It means getting the public to trust the police again.

The real test of democratic leadership is how to solve problems without breaking the law.


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