When those who rule us are thieves

Something dangerous can happen to a society when people no longer trust their leaders because they perceive them to be no different from ordinary thieves except that they steal more and can buy respectability. If a nation cannot act resolutely to confront the problem and find a collective solution, the resulting demoralization and cynicism among its citizens could produce a climate conducive to crime. If lawmakers are perceived to be themselves lawbreakers, and the police are barely distinguishable from criminals, can we expect ordinary people to respect society’s norms?

It is, of course, difficult to say how the average individual reacts to scandals in his social environment—as when top government officials stand accused of pocketing millions of pesos in public funds. But the expressions of deep disgust one hears daily from ordinary people are enough to make one wonder if big corruption at the top somehow neutralizes the weight of petty crimes below.

These thoughts came rushing to me as I pondered a question posed by my friend Romy Bernardo, a thoughtful economist who keeps a keen eye on general societal trends, at the end of our exchange about the seeming proliferation of petty crimes in the metropolis. “What is happening to our society, Professor?” he asked, recalling those memorable words originally addressed to a police general many years ago by a victim of an assassination attempt. I’m afraid I don’t have a rigorous answer to this question.  But, yes, it’s easy to get the sense that criminals in our midst are becoming more brazen.

Just the other day, a young colleague of mine in the University of the Philippines faculty was attacked and robbed in broad daylight as she opened her car in the parking lot fronting Palma Hall. Anyone who has spent time in UP Diliman would know that this is probably one of the busiest places on campus. The brief semestral break may have made this parking lot less packed with vehicles, but the place is hardly ever deserted even at night.

It was just after 4 in the afternoon, and the lady professor remembers being momentarily distracted by an urchin begging for coins. Just then, a man suddenly appeared from behind her and pushed her into the car, while two others entered the vehicle from the other doors. They told her they would not harm her if she kept quiet and cooperated. All they wanted, they said, were her valuables—her bag, her laptop, her cell phone, and ATM and credit cards.  Terrorized and stunned, she meekly surrendered all her things to them. They tightly sealed her mouth with packing tape, bound her feet and her hands with handcuffs, after asking her to write down the PIN for her ATM card. Using her own car, they then drove off to the nearest ATM kiosk on campus to withdraw all the money they could get from her bank account, and promptly brought her back, still using her car, to the same spot in the parking lot. From there, the robbers vanished as swiftly as they had appeared. Quite strangely, one of them left her the key to the handcuffs they had put around her feet. This enabled her to free her legs and drive out of the parking lot, with her hands still bound, and seek help at her office nearby.

Minus the details, this holdup incident follows virtually the same pattern as the robbery that resulted in the tragic death of the 25-year-old executive Kae Davantes a couple of months ago. Kae had just alighted from her car and was about to unlock the gate of her home in a gated middle-class village when the waiting robbers sprang from the shadows and shoved her back into her vehicle. Three young men have been arrested, and two more are being hunted down. The motive, the police investigators say, appears to be no more than robbery. Yet they killed her. Shown on TV, none of these men seemed to be starving, but one of them, who confessed to the crime, mentioned being in dire need of money.

So common and so freely uttered is this excuse for almost every petty crime that it has become ominously banal. What it suggests to me is not material poverty, which has its own dignity, but a corrosive dislike for hard and honest work.  Amid so much corruption, it is not farfetched to think that some people actually grow up believing that cunning is all they need to get ahead in life, that it’s okay to take what is not theirs because that is what survival is about. And, if they get caught, they can always show remorse, and claim, with an air of righteousness, that they are also victims of a flawed society.

As an analyst, I have always found moralistic formulations lacking in explanatory value. I would not go so far as to make a direct connection between perceptions of pervasive corruption in the higher echelons of society and the spread of petty crimes. Still, one cannot fail to see how such perceptions of widespread government corruption might encourage a feeling of normlessness, or a general loosening of social control mechanisms, and a sense that society is being prompted to urgently take a hard look at itself.

Indeed, that is how crime is treated in social systems theory—as an attack on the immune system of society that induces the latter to develop new and stronger defenses. So, taking a positive view of the succession of dire happenings that have recently hit our country, we might take comfort in seeing these as vaccines that will not kill us, and, indeed, can only strengthen our nation’s immune system against disasters, violent conflicts, corruption, and crime.

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