Personal security

The other night, just before 9, a gunman aboard a heavily tinted vehicle fired four shots in the direction of my house inside the University of the Philippines campus.  Because the bullets hit something very close to where I was at the time, I instinctively ducked but didn’t feel alarmed. I was quite sure the shots were not meant for me or my wife, or anyone living in the house. I do not know why anyone would have any motive to frighten or hurt me. I called the campus police and reported the matter. Then I decided to go out and check.

Some neighbors had gathered in front of our house. A couple said the gunfire came from what looked like a white Tamaraw FX, and they had taken note of its plate number. Footage from another neighbor’s CCTV camera showed the same vehicle returning four minutes later to the same spot where the shots were fired. It was only then that I became convinced that the strafing had indeed targeted our house. I checked if any of the two cars that were parked in our yard had been hit. A bullet had pierced one, leaving a shiny 9 mm slug on its floor. I visualized its trajectory. If the car had not been where it was, the bullet would have gone into the covered terrace where I was reading a book and my granddaughter was watching TV.

Moments like this make you ask why. You have led a fairly quiet life in academe, commenting on issues, but far from the frenzied world of politics. Now you find yourself asking: Did I hurt anyone unknowingly? Was I unfair to any person in my commentaries? In my mind, I quickly went through the topics of my past columns. I could not recall writing anything remotely libelous or inflammatory. I’ve been writing for the last 17 years about issues and the public lives that are embroiled in them. But I have always made it a point not to dig into personal troubles, or call people names. Is it possible that the attackers had mistaken my house for someone else’s residence? I like to think this was the case.

Be that as it may, it occurred to me that this perplexing incident dramatizes in an ironic way the very issues I wrote about last week on this space—namely, the right to the city, our dwindling public spaces, the fragmentation of our city into gated communities walled off from one another and from the swarm of homeless people, and our descent to an insecure society protected by private security agencies. That column elicited reactions mostly in defense of the right of households to secure themselves in what they perceive to be an increasingly unsafe environment.

Here is one from a clearly upset reader whom I will not name because I don’t have his permission: “Your assertion that it is absurd for subdivision residents to close and fence off entire streets from their adjoining neighborhoods is itself absurd. Is it absurd for one to seek security, safety and peace within one’s own neighborhood? … Are you prepared to tell me that my neighbors and I should sacrifice our families’ security, safety and peace just so our neighbors in the adjoining village can save a few minutes of travel as well as a few liters of gasoline?”

This was my reply:  “Believe me, I am not at all oblivious of the situation of our desperate and dwindling middle class. I live on the UP campus, perhaps one of the most porous communities in the whole of Metro Manila. My house sits on the periphery where the academic community merges with the surrounding slums. There have been muggings right in front of my house. The UP authorities have responded to countless petty crimes on campus committed by intruders by multiplying the security force.  Even now, the budget for security takes up a big chunk of the meager resources of the university….

“The problem is too complex for a single institution like UP to confront. We find ourselves adopting a siege mentality that is so contrary to the democratic ideas we espouse in our classrooms. I think that a more comprehensive and enduring solution will have to address, first, the unabated migration from the provinces to the city, by building the rural economy, revitalizing agriculture, and building more schools and health centers for people in the countryside. Then we can address the huge presence of slum-dwellers and homeless people already in the city. Resettlement far away from the city will work only if there are livelihood opportunities near resettlement communities. The better prospect appears to be on-site development. This requires enormous amounts of political will and public capital. But, we must begin to think of resources allotted to these needs as investments in social peace and human development.

“Right now, every family, every community, is forced to defend itself, using its own resources, against what appears to be a hostile environment. This response, while understandable, has limited value. It pits one community against the others, the well-off against the poor. We used to respond to low water pressure during summer in like manner. We bought pumps to suck the limited water from the mains into our homes, in the process drawing in silted and contaminated water. We did pretty much the same thing in response to brownouts—every home acquired a gen-set, creating a lot of noise and polluting the atmosphere in the process. These individualistic responses must give way to systemic and comprehensive solutions.  That is what governments and communities are for.”

I don’t think I managed to persuade my reader.

But, having said this, I know I’m not about to complicate my life by getting a security guard to protect my household or carrying a gun to defend myself. I will just have to find security in the thought that my wife and I have good neighbors and a legion of protective friends.