Marines at the malls?

Or, is Metro Manila in a state of war?  The Constitution gives the President as Commander-in-Chief the power to call out the armed forces in cases of invasion, rebellion, or lawless violence.  By no stretch of the imagination can the situation in the shopping malls today be classified under any of these conditions.  If we go by the constitution, the Marines have no business being at the malls except as shoppers.

But why has the government deployed a whole battalion of Marines to patrol the city?  And more importantly, why does the general public seem to welcome it?

Those of us who oppose even the temporary use of the Marines for police work on constitutional grounds must do better than simply invoke the constitution.  We must explain why this is not right even on practical grounds.  The resulting discussion would go far in educating ourselves about the nature of our political system, or in alerting us to those circumstances that compel dangerous shifts in government policy.

The public has long believed that our police is incompetent, corrupt and ill-equipped to fight criminals. Peace and order in the city is perceived to be near collapse.  On the other hand, the Marines are known as the fittest and most-highly disciplined of our soldiers.  So why not tap them for the war against crime?  The public would feel more secure, the Marines would find something worthwhile to do, and the government might save some money and probably even bring down the crime rate.

These are sensible justifications.  Against an abstract constitutional objection, they sound more reasonable and practical.  The average citizen would easily understand and agree with them.

The argument from the other side may not be easy to appreciate. Concerned groups have raised the specter of human rights violations when soldiers trained to kill in combat are deployed for police work in non-combat civilian settings.  They question the suitability of military discipline to the tasks of regulating everyday community life.  They are alarmed by the mere sight of military deployment in public places, which they associate with martial law and coup attempts.

Top police and military officials have responded to these concerns with a good dose of commonsense.  They claim that members of the armed forces have long been routinely assigned to perform civilian functions like providing security to public officials.  No one has raised constitutional objections to this practice.  Why can’t the general public, they ask, enjoy the same protection previously reserved only to politicians?

Against the fear that the presence of the Marines, who are untrained in the subtleties of police-community relations, might set off more human rights violations – the argument is that on the contrary the public seems more secure with these soldiers than with the regular police. And, finally, as if in anticipation of concerns that military visibility in the city might create a martial law climate, the authorities have announced that the Marines will not be in combat gear and will go out on patrol only with their police counterparts.

It is undeniable that the general public welcomes the increased visibility of law-enforcers in public places.  But whether it is wise and practical to accomplish this by deploying soldiers from the armed forces is the main question the government must answer. The specific character of military discipline and of the Marines’ own brand of combat training seems inappropriate to the requisites of civilian peace-keeping.  It is also possible that the Marines’ assignment to police work runs counter to their self-identity. It may render them incapable in the long run of performing the vital functions for which they were originally trained.

If the government believes that the present police force is incompetent, then it should recruit and train a new generation of capable and credible law-enforcers.  But the country should not be stampeded into accepting the deployment of the Marines for police work as a short-term measure.  There is no short-term solution to criminality.

And if, in an era of peace, our nation finds that it has less need for a regular standing army, then perhaps it is time we reduced the size of the military.  The excess personnel can in good time be re-tooled and re-assigned to civilian functions like police work.  My point is that we cannot do this on a random basis without risking precisely those problems that arise when social life is militarized.

I do not think the framers of our Constitution were just being capricious when they included among the 1987 Constitution’s General Provisions (Article XVI) the command that “No member of the armed forces in the active service shall, at any time, be appointed or designated in any capacity to a civilian position in the Government including government-owned or controlled corporations or any of their subsidiaries.”

I believe they were determined to protect the civilian character of our system.  They knew that as the principal bearers of the State’s coercive power, the military must be insulated from the vagaries of civilian society in order to minimize the risk of this power being used against society itself.

The fielding of the Marines in shopping malls and schools mocks this basic wisdom and brings the country one step toward militarization.


Comments to <>