The creeping normality of extrajudicial killings

There is no question today about the rampant character of the drug menace in our country. The public perception that the problem has far exceeded the capacity of normal law enforcement has no doubt greatly contributed to the election of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency. The tough-talking former mayor of Davao City ran on the solitary promise that he would not hesitate to kill in order to stop the drug problem in three to six months.

The killings have already begun. In fact, they began soon after it became clear that Mayor Duterte, long known as “The Punisher,” had won the presidency. As though on cue, police agencies instantly took it upon themselves to raid the lairs of suspected drug pushers, killing their targets on the spot or on the way to the police precinct. The standard excuse is that the suspects were armed and had fired at them first, or had tried to grab their firearms.

Hardly anyone believes this yarn, but it’s amazing how police officers could tell it with a straight face. The mass media have reported at least 103 such killings under the present regime, including those done vigilante-style.  These reports have swiftly sent a wave of panic across the country’s drug-infested communities, where confessed drug users have been shown surrendering en masse, ostensibly begging for rehabilitation. But if there is any public outcry over these evident summary executions, it has been largely muted.

On the contrary, the public’s thirst for decisive action could not be appeased by these police operations that seemed to target only the low-ranking members of drug syndicates. Indeed, many saw these deliberate killings as no more than a convenient way to eliminate police assets who could potentially implicate their police protectors. The public kept asking: Where are the big fish?

Before cynicism over the seriousness of the antidrug campaign could set in, President Duterte himself took the unprecedented move of publicly naming five top police generals, three of them still in active service, accusing them of being the protectors of notorious drug lords. He also named two drug lords, both of them serving time in prison, who, he said, continued to run their trade even while in detention. He vowed to have them killed on sight if they dared even for a moment to leave their prison cells.

The President’s forceful actions and threatening pronouncements have certainly amplified the resoluteness of his crusade against drugs, criminality, and corruption. But, they have also justly alarmed human rights advocates, who insist that the due process of law be followed in dealing with even the most hardened criminals and corrupt public officials who have betrayed their oath of office.

These apprehensions, however, have found little or no resonance in the public consciousness, judging from the absence of a collective uproar over these recent killings. Ordinary citizens seem to have accepted the idea that they have nothing to fear from the police or the vigilantes if they are not themselves into drugs or engaged in criminal activity. This is all too ironic, for such implicit trust ultimately rests on the presumption that our institutions are functional, and that the authorities that have power over our lives are incorruptible and incapable of using this power to kill innocent people.

It is this enabling mindset that I find truly alarming. It is just one step away from the notion that it is all right to set aside our free institutions to solve our most pressing problems.  The Marcos dictatorship imposed a regime of intimidation on the Filipino people by detaining and killing critics and dissenters.

For this, it needed martial law.

The Duterte administration, in contrast, seems to mobilize public fear, resentment, and desperation in order to build a consensus around a project of national cleansing and reconstruction. This project does not require martial law; it only needs manipulated mass enthusiasm for it to succeed. How it is actually carried out appears to be determined less by the logic of existing institutions than by the trusted leader’s instincts. Its most devoted army, as we have seen, is to be found, not in the military camps, but in the social media.

Something that needs to be keenly watched in such developments is the easy resort to brutal means whose redemptive promise effectively shields them from legal or ethical scrutiny. Confronted by these daily killings, we need to constantly search ourselves for explanations for our indifference and inability to be horrified by repeated violations of fundamental constitutional rights. We must resist the tendency to accept these killings as the new normal, the final solution to the overwhelming crisis of crime and corruption that has long gripped our society.

For it is foolish to suppose that the problems demanding this kind of extraordinary response will be confined to the drug menace or the corruption of government officials. I think it is just a matter of time before anyone or anything that could be described as a threat to the wellbeing of the nation becomes fair game.

Yet, after everything has been said and done, why am I left with the uneasy feeling that what we are being served may be no more than spectacles—images that stand for realities that are too complex to engage our sustained attention? The killings do have that mesmerizing and numbing effect.

There is an ominous passage in Guy Debord’s 1967 treatise “The Society of the Spectacle” that seems to sum up that condition: “The spectacle is the guardian of sleep.” We should be vigilant.

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