How a nation lives with its helplessness

It is not exceptional to hear of incest rape cases where the mother is found to have closed her eyes to her husband’s crime.  The initial shock of knowing is replaced by a passive acceptance of a situation in which she feels she has no control.  Her mind works this out for her, producing incredible adjustments in perception congenial to her helplessness.

The situation of a nation confronting its own pain is not so different. We find ourselves re-weaving our beliefs, often without our realizing it, in order to justify our inaction to ourselves.  We learn to alter our speech by using milder words to refer to the same things.   We begin to talk of choices of lesser evils.  We adjust our so-called bottom lines so often they become meaningless.  Our failure to act becomes habitual; time dissolves our doubts.

How we have dealt with three critical events in the last few weeks – the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping, the dismissal of the tax-evasion case against Lucio Tan, and the discovery of Marcos assets in a US securities company — illustrates our boundless capacity for such dissimulation.

With the Abu Sayyaf, we began by reiterating the national policy of not paying ransom to kidnappers.  After the Malaysians opened their own lines to the kidnappers and secured the release of the first hostages, we quickly denied that money was used to free the victims. Later, when it became obvious that the Malaysians and the Germans were in fact paying ransom, we fell into saying it was foreign money and not Philippine money that had changed hands.  The no-ransom policy came to mean no ransom may be drawn from public funds, but it was all right use private funds.

Because foreigners were involved, we were conscious of the need to ensure their safety.  But we were also assertive of our national sovereignty. We insisted on solving the problem our own way.  We dismissed the idea of getting the Organization of the Islamic Conference to mediate.  Yet in the next breath we called on retired Libyan Ambassador Azzarouq to help.  Before we realized it, we had allowed a Libyan donation of $25 million in “development funds” in exchange for the freedom of the foreign hostages.  We referred to it as  “foreign aid” and not ransom because we said it was to be dispensed by the government and not by the Abu Sayyaf.

Our seeming helplessness to go after common criminals like the Abu Sayyaf and the “big fish” who routinely mock our laws has never been more evident than in the dismissal of the tax-evasion case against Lucio Tan.  The man bankrolled the election of the incumbent president, that is why everyone was waiting to see how long it would take a friendly government to clear him of the charges filed by the past administration.  It did not take very long.

The new Bureau of Internal Revenue commissioner simply withdrew the case, claiming insufficiency of evidence.  To everyone’s surprise, the then Secretary of Justice Serafin Cuevas protested and ordered the re-filing of the case.  Cuevas was fired.  The case was dismissed, and the government conveniently failed to appeal the decision of a lower court within the prescribed period.   Perhaps Lucio Tan is innocent after all?  We will never know.  Time will soon override the disturbing memory of another crony who broke our laws with impunity.

Lucio Tan is a small fish compared to the biggest of them all – Ferdinand Marcos.  Fourteen years after he was thrown out by people power, the billions that he stashed away in foreign accounts abroad remain unrecovered.   Assets amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars discovered in Swiss banks a few years ago have been put on escrow, awaiting final judgment on the forfeiture case against the Marcoses.  The same will apply to the $20 million in cash and securities kept for the Marcoses by the Merrill Lynch firm.  We cannot use these resources because the forfeiture case before the Sandiganbayan is unresolved until now.  Why?

The answer most likely to be given by the government prosecutors is, again, insufficiency of evidence.  The Marcoses cannot show the legitimate source of such enormous wealth, but neither can the government prove the wealth is ill-gotten.  Thus the stage is set for negotiation.  What makes the negotiation difficult is the fact that what is at issue here is not just the money, but an entire generation’s memory.  What is being forged is not just a compromise settlement but indeed the self-concept of a nation.

The clash between our wishes and our deepest convictions is a recurrent theme in our nation’s life.  To agree to a sharing compromise with the Marcoses is to reverse our views of Edsa and to spit at the sacrifice of those who died fighting the dictatorship.  To free Lucio Tan of all tax accountability, without letting the public know how the evidence against him was judged to be inadequate by those assigned to prosecute him, is to believe that political clout trumps the law.  To fail to control the Abu Sayyaf, to let them receive ransom money so that they can buy more firearms and recruit more bandits into their ranks, is to announce that, in this country, crime pays.

Beliefs are habits of action.  We become aware of our real beliefs by the way we act.  When we don’t mind seeing lawbreakers get away, when we fail to criticize public officials who make this possible, we thereby broadcast our belief in the primacy of power over justice, of force over reason.

As I said, our minds can do fantastic tricks of reinterpretation to make us accept the present.  The only protection against this is to constantly remind ourselves of what we need to do to create the best results we want for the future.


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