When 41-year-old Ronald “Bossing” Bae went on a shooting rampage in his neighborhood in Kawit, Cavite, the other day, indiscriminately killing eight and wounding about 11 others, the local media promptly labeled his heinous act as that of an “amok.” “Bigla  na  lang  siyang  nag-amok,” reporters said, echoing the words of Bae’s stunned neighbors.

Malay in origin, the word “amok” instantly summons images of a man (never a woman) who is so blinded by desperate rage that he charges headlong and kills anybody in his path.  Originally used as an adjective, it entered the English language, according to the Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins, by way of the Portuguese noun “amouco,”  meaning, a “homicidally crazed Malay.”  One can only suppose that to every colonial army that arrived in the Malay world, whose advances were fiercely resisted by the natives, every fighter who rushed into the battlefield despite the odds had to be an “amok”—a dangerous killer in the grip of a trance.

The word’s association with native resistance to foreign incursions survived till the American period, when it was specifically applied to the valiant Moro rebels of Mindanao. Toward the end of Spanish rule, however, the term “juramentado”  (from the Spanish   juramentar,   i.e. to swear or make a pledge) began to be used more often to refer to willful fighters driven by belief.  Subsequently, huramentado entered the Filipino language as a reference to any form of righteous rage that takes a violent turn. (Is it not a strange coincidence that the weapon Bae used to murder his neighbors is the same .45 caliber M1911 handgun developed expressly for the use of American troops in the early 1900s against the “frenzied” Moro fighters of Mindanao?)

In Malay culture, and, I suppose, that includes the substratum of our own psyche, the amok is a figure of fascination. He is thought of as someone who is possessed, and, acting out of character, suddenly goes into a frenzied killing spree. In this state, he, in effect, is inviting others to kill him. There are stories of amoks who are subdued before they can do further harm.  When they snap out of the trance, they remember nothing of the violent disposition they assumed or the mayhem they caused. Since the mid-19th century, this syndrome has been diagnosed as a form of psychotic disorder.

The first thought that came to my mind as I was watching the first television reports of Ronald Bae’s rampage in Cavite was not of an amok, but of a copycat killer taking his cue from the Connecticut gunman who shocked the world when he walked into the Sandy Hook elementary school on a wintry day last December and killed 26 people, 20 of them children. No one in the American media said that Adam Lanza had “run amuck.” I am not sure either that it is appropriate to apply it to Ronald Bae.

First, I have never heard of an assisted amok. The role played by Bae’s house caretaker, John Paul Lopez, is, to say the least, absurd.  He was seen and photographed reloading the magazine for Bae’s .45 as his boss kept firing.  Was he also delirious? Was he doing it under duress? As Bae walked out into the street, shooting everyone in sight, why did he not take the first chance to flee? Lopez went missing later, but the police say they have arrested him in another town. Prior to the shooting, he and Bae were seen drinking the whole day and night. What were they talking about?

Second, while Bae was intoxicated and possibly high on drugs, his appearance was far from frenzied. Like Adam Lanza, his movements were calculated and methodical. He was reported to have initially gone to the neighboring house, looking for his  kumpare, Berto. Not finding his  kumpare  home, he vented his frustration on Berto’s three young children and shot all of them. Then he started to kick at the doors of a nearby row of apartments, shooting anybody he found inside, including a pregnant woman doing her laundry and the little daughter beside her. “Bossing” then walked down the narrow alley into the market, firing his gun at will, hitting the brothers Al and Antonio Orio, who were selling  taho, and Irene Funelas, a fruit vendor. After everyone had scampered to safety, the local tough guy calmly walked back to his house. This is where the responding police caught up with him and killed him in the ensuing shootout.

Who was Ronaldo “Bossing” Bae? His neighbors say the man was not originally from the area. He owned a big house there but he had not been living there for about two years now. No one could say exactly what his source of income was. He seemed well-connected, and he liked surrounding himself with personal underlings, like John Paul Lopez. He was known to be generous with his money, and some people called him a “Robin Hood.” In 2010, he ran for barangay captain but lost. In whispers, neighbors say they suspected him to be a drug pusher. They feared him, and continued to be remarkably guarded in what they told reporters about him even after the police had shot him dead. Why?

Important as it is, I have not addressed here the question of gun control. I agree with urgent proposals to tighten gun ownership, confiscate loose firearms, and impose a total ban on the carrying of firearms by private individuals during the holiday season. But, having said this, I cannot overstress the fact that it is necessary to look into the social context surrounding mass shooting incidents such as the Kawit massacre.

Killing sprees are not common in our society. But global communication can easily bring these images of criminal deviance into our living rooms. We must make sure that, in whatever part of the world they happen, acts like these are not romanticized or mythicized, but resolutely condemned.

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