Out of the at least eight separate inquiries aimed at finding the truth behind the Jan. 25 Mamasapano incident, one or two should be able to tell us what “really” happened. That is our hope. Unfortunately, truth is not something that is out there, waiting to be discovered. Truth is rather something we make, something we piece together from the fragments of our experiences and partial perspectives.

“Truth,” Nietzsche famously said, “is a mobile army of metaphors.” To know this is to temper our expectations about getting simple answers for the questions we are asking about Mamasapano. The battle for the meaning of words is no different from actual combat in the field of war. Dissimulation and deception are so much the rule that “virtually nothing is as incomprehensible as how an honest and pure drive to truth could have arisen among men.”

In Nietzsche’s reckoning, agreement on the meanings of words may indeed have been the first fruit of a peace treaty. “Namely, what is henceforth to count as ‘truth’ is now fixed, that is, a uniformly valid and binding designation of things is invented, and the legislation of language likewise yields the first laws of truth.”

Take the word “terrorist.” It is a term popularized by the United States to designate its newfound enemies in the post-Cold War era—groups or individuals who employ unrestrained violence, or its threat, to sow fear and panic among the people in order to attain political objectives. Over the years, this word has been used as a label for armed Islamist militants. (There’s another word: “Islamist.”)

Drawing from its perception of the world’s changing political landscape, the United States routinely includes and removes groups from its roster of “terrorist” individuals and organizations. For instance, it considers the New People’s Army (NPA) a terrorist group, much like the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). But, it has explicitly refrained from applying the same label to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

This is very important to the MILF. It raises its international legitimacy as a political actor worthy of being heard by the community of nations. This recognition, however, comes with some obligations. Chief among them is the need to demonstrate a capacity to abide by certain understandings. But, does the MILF also accept the designation of Marwan and Usman as terrorists who should be denied refuge in their communities? We presume that it does. But, does the organization also regard it as part of its obligation to actively participate in gathering and reporting information about the movement of “terrorists” in its midst? We don’t know. These are issues that have to be unpacked before the MILF can be accused of “coddling” Marwan and Usman.

I believe it is easier to accept the MILF’s claim of self-defense when it fired at the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force troops on Jan. 25, than it is to believe its assertion that it was the BIFF rather than the MILF that was sheltering Marwan and Usman. No one believes that the lines separating the BIFF from the MILF are that sharply defined. Did the MILF actually know—and was it concerned—that the BIFF was harboring these two wanted international terrorists? It is difficult to take the MILF’s explanation at face value.

Be that as it may, from a strictly legal standpoint, the MILF probably has less to account for in what happened in Mamasapano than the Philippine government itself. Both parties were signatories to the 1997 GRP-MILF Agreement on the General Cessation of Hostilities, which prescribes careful coordination between the two parties, particularly where law-enforcement activities might entail the extraordinary movement of troops. Thus, when the SAF troops entered Mamasapano without prior coordination with the MILF, their officials knew they were violating a key protocol in the peace agreement. In so doing, they had put at risk not only the lives of their men, but also those of the MILF and the civilians living in these communities.

In saying this, we are far from losing sight of the valuable objective of the SAF mission in Mamasapano—which was to capture or kill two notorious bomb-makers that the authorities have been pursuing for the longest time. The nobility of the mission is not in question. What is the implicit view that its objectives outweighed everything else.

What exactly it was that impelled our authorities to take the risks they did may never be known. Even after Director Getulio Napeñas, the head of the SAF, took full responsibility for what happened, what we are left with essentially are outcomes without authors. We caught a glimpse of this in how President Aquino responded to a reporter’s straightforward question: “Did you give the go-signal to this operation?” Rather than answer the question as it was posed, he rephrased it: “‘Sir, can we proceed with the operation?’ I don’t think I was ever asked that question … ‘Sir, can we arrest the man the court ordered to be arrested?’ Can I even say no?” The President was offering a view of the role he played, perhaps with an eye to the legal suits he might be facing: what lawyers call a ministerial role.

Nietzsche would have been amused. “We still don’t know where the drive to truth comes from,” he wrote, “for we have hitherto heard only of the obligation to be truthful, which society imposes in order to exist—that is, the obligation to use the customary metaphors … the obligation to lie in accordance with a fixed convention …”

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