It was shocking to hear how two policemen tried to explain their participation in the gruesome murder of PR man Bubby Dacer and his driver Emmanuel Corbito. “We were misled,” they said. “We were made to believe it was a legitimate operation.” These killers were members of the police, specifically of the elite group within the police called the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force or PAOCTF. They were supposed to stop crime, not preside over it.
How could they have been misled? They could not have possibly believed it was legal to kill suspected criminals in their custody. What they most likely meant to say was: they were made to think that Dacer and Corbito were drug dealers or kidnappers who deserved to be disposed of as quickly as possible instead of given a chance to defend themselves in court. Now they know they have killed innocent people, but they did not sound like they saw anything wrong with summary execution as a swift method of dealing with criminals.
Whence comes such a mindset? I think it comes from the same culture that promotes blind obedience to power because it has failed to fuse existing moral sensibilities with the rationality of the law. Such a culture became the plaything of an authoritarian adventurer like Marcos who supplied the decisiveness needed to direct the accumulated energy of the unthinking mass in the military. It was also vulnerable to the designs of a shrewd actor like Erap, who knew which cultural buttons to press in order to achieve his narrow personal ends.
In general, we Filipinos still do not have an appreciation of the meaning of individual rights and freedoms, nor for that matter of the obligations of citizenship. Our social order is still based on a tremendous fear and awe of power. We develop various ways of ingratiating ourselves with the powerful or of creating bridges to them. We endlessly take our cues from them and try to divine what would please them. The armor of personal morality or of character that we wear thinly in our daily lives crumbles in the face of orders or requests from the boss.
The basic concepts of right and wrong we learn at school or at home are no match against the urgent practicalities of power. We quickly affiliate ourselves with the winners and abandon the losers, except when we can still make use of them. The same energy that feeds the vocation for murder among the PAOCTF elements fuels the vocation for corruption among our public officials. From this perspective, nothing much distinguishes the murderers of Dacer and Corbito from the public officials who permitted Joseph Estrada to misuse or steal public funds. They are cut from the same fabric – the fear and awe of power.
The customary restraints – those elements in our traditional culture that the filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik calls the cultural brakes or “preno” – have failed to work in the complex settings of a society in the throes of transition. Notions of basic human decency and honor that made our ancestors noble beings in their own time have found no place in the soul of the modern Filipino. The loss of these traditional brakes should have paved the way for the inculcation of a new set of norms appropriate to modern nationhood. Unfortunately, as someone wrote, “the old is dying but the new cannot be born.”
We grope for steady rules and principles that would light our way in a time of great change, and we only find ourselves repeatedly in the thrall of power. Picture the top officials of the Social Security System (SSS) and the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) under Estrada. One is hard-pressed to understand how these otherwise highly educated individuals could so allow themselves to be cowed or manipulated by a seemingly simple-minded president as to gamble away precious pension funds belonging to ordinary workers and employees. Were they misled? Were they made to believe it was a legitimate operation?
If we could understand the thought process that led SSS’s Carlos Arellano and GSIS’s Federico Pascual to justify to themselves the use of public pension funds for the purchase of shares of stocks in companies belonging to Erap cronies, we should have no trouble understanding the minds of Bubby Dacer’s killers. Only a thin line divides licensed murder from licensed plunder. The same principle is at work in both instances: the word of the boss is the law.
Indeed if we could figure out the kind of thinking that allows the senatorial candidates of the Puwersa ng Masa to close their eyes to the crimes of Joseph Estrada, we should have no problem understanding the lumpen-poor who continue to embrace Erap as their idol. The only difference is that the former cannot see because they are morally blind, whereas the latter cannot open their eyes because they are hungry.
By now it should be obvious that our problems go beyond murderous policemen and plunderous presidents. They go into the very heart of our way of life as a nation. Unable to find comfort in past achievements, we also cannot see beyond the present. We have trouble measuring ourselves against an ideal because the ideal remains elusive. We are too busy trying to survive we have not had time to debate the kind of nation we want to be.
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