The economy of killing

To be able to state what seems commonsensical without fear of being labeled immoral, or criminal, or uncivilized, or even crazy, has been one of President Duterte’s abiding rhetorical skills. It is what makes him a captivating speaker despite his penchant for longwinded and incoherent monologues.

One never knows what he’s going to say, or who will be the next object of his unrestrained cussing and threatening language.  He can’t seem to resist stepping out of a prepared script regardless of the occasion.  He is alternately funny and fearsome, ironic and straightforward, rude and decorous. In a word, he’s unpredictable.  In this manner is he able to command the undivided attention of his audiences.

A good example was his recent foray into what one might bluntly call the economy of killing.

Informed that the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor), the state agency that regularly replenishes the President’s Social Fund, has earmarked P1 billion for the rehabilitation of drug dependents, he casually remarked that the money could have been used for worthier purposes.

The occasion was the oath taking of a new batch of presidential appointees, and the speech was aired on national television. The President explained: “So just imagine, one billion which could have been used for something like feeding the hungry. Napunta sa mga ulol hindi ko naman … gusto kong patayin lahat eh … magkakaroon tayo ng eskandalo.  So I had to subsidize also the … eh Pilipino eh.”

The real scandal in this remark, however, is that many Filipinos will most likely agree with it. To them, it’s commonsense: A poor country cannot afford to waste precious resources on the rehabilitation of drug addicts.  Drug addicts are better off dead than alive, a drain on government resources. It is foolish to think that, with a little help from the public, they can be rescued from their self-chosen addiction.

The power of Mr. Duterte’s words resides in the fact that while he freely articulates such sentiments, ordinary Filipinos who may hold these beliefs with more or less the same conviction cannot openly say them out of fear of being called barbaric or unchristian. Rather than examine these disturbing biases if only to understand their hidden sources, they draw satisfaction from hearing them confirmed by no less than the nation’s highest official.

Therein, I think, lies the secret of Mr. Duterte’s popularity. His approach to the complex work of governance is founded upon the presumed futility of conventional methods.  He has no qualms about short-circuiting the requirements of formal institutions, believing these to be, at best, superfluous, and, at worst, dysfunctional.

This is a knee-jerk reaction to the complex demands of a modern society. Instead of figuring out for ourselves how to master the routines of democratic statecraft, we have sought refuge in the decisiveness of sultanic rule.  No matter how dubious the premises of these unorthodox solutions are, we scramble to find a warrant for them, even portraying them as inspired and born of native wisdom and experience.

We echo this way of thinking when we rationalize the killing of poor folks by the police or by masked gunmen by pointing to their participation in the illicit drug trade, oblivious to the minor roles they play and the circumstances that draw them to this way of life. If a study of those who have been killed in this so-called war were to be conducted, it would not be surprising to find that none of these slain drug pushers from the slums ever became rich from drug peddling.

Their starting point has been a world of poverty and squalor. Sniffing drugs gave them a momentary escape from that world, and selling sachets of shabu augmented their meager incomes. But, at that level, earnings from drug peddling would never have been enough to feed a family.

My brother, Caloocan Bishop Pablo David, has opened a rehabilitation program for drug dependents who seek treatment for their addiction and a refuge from the killers that stalk their neighborhoods.

Not equipped for resident patients, the program requires its participants to attend all-day therapy sessions.  He noticed that despite their eagerness to be cured of their addiction, only a few could come for the whole day. The rest said they had to take care of their families first before they could come in for therapy. Rehabilitation may give them a better chance at a normal life, but it does not free them from the exigencies of poverty.

Serious drug rehabilitation programs entail enormous investments in resources, facilities, time, and dedicated and trained personnel. Still, recidivism is high everywhere. In short, they are costly—so costly that if one measures their value in terms of economic rationality, they would easily lose out to other priorities.  But that’s the reason we have governments; they are supposed to operate according to a different set of norms.

In the same speech, Mr. Duterte turned to his critics: “I may not really be the ideal public official that you’d want me to be. Sabi hindi raw statesman.  Eh p_ ina statesman; ang kinuha ko law.  There’s no such degree as statesman.  Bakit mo ipilit sa akin ganon, statesman, statesman? Wala ka

naman ginawa sa bayan mo.”

The last sentence is the clincher: that being a statesman means nothing if you can’t do anything for your country. It’s a false equation. A statesman is a leader who gains the world’s respect and admiration for his country and people, by the selfless way in which he represents their highest ideals, and by the measured manner he harnesses the nation’s collective power to solve its problems.