Panic and outrage over ‘tanim-bala’

One of the costs the whole world continues to pay for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States is the intrusive security inspection that travelers everywhere have had to endure when they check in at airports.  Worried for their own safety, they have learned to accept the need for these procedures even when these seem capricious, excessive and unwarranted.

One often submits to an airport security inspector with the same sense of dread and vulnerability that one feels while undergoing a medical procedure.  But, while a patient’s anxiety might be greatly eased by an implicit trust in the doctor, that of an airline passenger is often aggravated by a lingering fear that an unsympathetic or power-tripping security inspector might find the smallest reason to hold and delay one’s travel.

This is the broader context in which we might begin to understand the sudden explosion of public panic and outrage that has been triggered by recent media reports of a growing number of passengers being victimized by syndicates at our airports. The modus operandi entails planting live bullets in people’s bags for the purpose of later extorting money from the hapless victims.  This panic has taken the rather paranoid form of passengers wrapping their luggage in rolls of plastic and packing tape as a precaution against planted ammunition. A public that, to start with, harbors a negative view of airport personnel in general does not need more than one instance of “tanim-bala” to confirm its darkest suspicions.

My own reflex reaction to these events mirrors this sad and unexamined cynicism. I thought that the problem was easy enough to solve: Immediately suspend the personnel who “found” bullets in passengers’ bags and then offered to “fix” the problem for a fee. I said: Let the victims go uncharged, and file criminal charges against the concerned airport security people. They could be guilty not just of extortion but also of the more serious offense of planting evidence.  The implementing rules and regulations of Republic Act No. 10591, known as The Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act, prescribes the penalty of reclusion perpetua for “planting of evidence” when committed by government employees.

I think I am not alone in this rush to judgment, which presumes the total innocence of the victims and the culpability of the airport personnel.  Our moral intuition tells us that while low-paid employees, like X-ray operators and baggage inspectors, might always be inclined to earn extra money on the side, ordinary folks have no reason to be carrying one or two pieces of live ammunition in their travel bags. I now believe that this problem is not as simple as it may appear at first glance; there’s a need to take a second look at the situation.

First, we have to be open to the possibility that, even in these modern times, some people do regard live bullets as amulets.  They keep them in their pockets or in their bags to ward off malevolent spirits and protect them from spells cast by the power of witchcraft.  Their worldview, says Ben Anderson, treats power as “intangible, mysterious, and driven energy which animates the universe… [and] is manifested in every aspect of the natural world, in stones, trees, clouds, and fire” (quoted in R. Ileto’s “Pasyon at Rebolusyon”).  It is not strange at all that some folks might think of the stored energy contained in a single bullet as the most potent form of such power. They see the magic in the bullet, but not the ammunition that it is in the eyes of the law.

Second, given the frequency with which airport inspectors discover bullets in the bags or pockets of passengers, it is not farfetched to suspect that, at one point, someone with a criminal mind might have thought of spinning an entire extortion racket around this practice. That is when “tanim-bala” might have begun, enlisting the assistance of taxi drivers, baggage handlers, etc. to lodge those incriminating items in the bags of unsuspecting travelers.

Third, the law itself, RA 10591, is quite uncompromising: It punishes mere unlawful possession of an unspent bullet, and gives law enforcers the right to confiscate any part of a bullet that is in one’s unlawful possession. A friend of mine had to let go of a small bullet casing containing a minute portion of his late father’s precious ashes that he wore as part of a bracelet around his wrist. To all intents and purposes, this piece of ornament could not be classified as ammunition. But the copper casing that used to house a slug betrayed traces of its lethal past.  He had to surrender it to airport security as though it were a firearm.

Until RA 10591 is cleansed of its draconian features, it makes no sense to delay people’s trips because inspectors have found one or two bullets in their bags.  By all means, confiscate these objects. But, as a matter of policy, do not delay passengers further than necessary, unless there is reasonable ground to believe that, given the quantity of bullets in their possession, they are engaged in the unlawful traffic of ammunition.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that the more troubling issue here is the extortion that tends to accompany nearly every incident of this nature.  Without the prospect of extorting money, “tanim-bala” loses its purpose. Passengers must be emboldened to file complaints against airport personnel who threaten them with prosecution and offer to get them out of their predicament in exchange for money. The justice system has to take every such complaint seriously, with the courts tacitly leaning on the side of the complainants.  That is the only way to put a stop to this outrageous racket.

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