Questions for an ‘eyewitness generation’

In the not-so-distant future, after we have awakened from the nightmare we are going through, someone will propose the creation of a truth commission to inquire into the brazen killings that have attended the so-called “war on drugs.”  Perhaps, while still in a daze, a chastened Filipino public would be seeking answers to troubling questions.

Not the least of these might be the following: How did we, as a people, react when hooded gunmen and police officers, taking their cue from the nation’s highest official, invaded our streets and neighborhoods, night after night, searching for drug suspects to kill or to take away? Did we cower in fear and silence while hiding in some dark corner, afraid to witness, or to record what was happening?

At what point did we lose our will to defend ourselves and our fellow citizens against unlawful intrusions into our homes, warrantless arrests, and brazen murders? What made us fearful, timid, passive, and indifferent in the face of this assault on our liberties? When did we begin to rationalize violence and the surrender of our hard-won freedoms and civil rights? How did the rest of our society — our political leaders, the guardians of our legal system, the mass media, civil society, our moral elders and religious pastors – react to these events? When did we stop counting the dead and start accepting the normalization of killing as a fact of life?

It is important for us — this “eyewitness generation” — to start pondering these questions even now, before we become completely numb, and complicit in a horrific crime that is being perpetrated on the Filipino people, particularly the poor and the powerless among them.

By now, we may have become used to a leadership style that, for want of a better term, I have labeled “Dutertismo” in previous columns. Political observers are hard-pressed to know whether Dutertismo is just a subtype of premodern autocracy, to which belong the local warlords, the Mafiosi, or the strongmen who deploy violence to intimidate their communities. Or, whether it represents something more worrisome and far more dangerous — a descent to a form of fascism, such as the world had seen in Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy.

While “murderous brutality” is a trait that is common to both traditional tyranny and modern fascism, the crucial difference, writers on fascism remind us, is that fascism is driven by a mass movement. Fascism does not use violence merely to silence the population.  Rather, it deploys violence precisely as a medium to mobilize and energize its followers.  It seeks popular acclamation and active engagement in the streets, not passivity.  Moreover, in simple dictatorships, real democracy has yet to take root.  In fascism, democracy is declared a failure, and given up.

These are historical characterizations, however, that do not always accurately capture emerging realities in the world.  In this age of complexity,  there’s nothing to stop a traditional strongman from catalyzing the formation of a popular fascist movement.  This attempt may or may not succeed.  To ascertain where we are headed, we should observe ourselves and the shifts in public consciousness, as much as we continue to keep an eye on Mr. Duterte and what he does.

From the basic reading I have done on the subject, I have culled 10 indicators of a mindset that is hospitable to fascism:

  1. The demonization of an imagined enemy. Not being human, the enemy is deemed not entitled to any rights or the respect appropriate to a human being. Such was the attitude cultivated by the Nazis toward the Jews and Communists in Germany. Such is the way some of our officials talk about drug addicts and pushers in our midst.
  1. The belief that the liberal state, with its democratic institutions and legal processes, is ill-equipped to deal with the urgent threat posed by the enemy. In our country, that threat is known as the the narco state.
  1. The perception that only a ruthless leader who does not hesitate to kill can effectively stop the enemy.
  1. The belief that ordinary citizens need not fear falling victim to state violence because it is reserved only for the enemies of the state.
  1. The belief that if ordinary people cannot be part of the solution, they should strive not to be part of the problem. In short, they should let the government do what it must do. To protest against its efforts is to coddle the enemy.
  1. The belief that the threat posed by the enemy lies at the heart of the country’s basic problems — poverty, corruption, crime, and underdevelopment. Therefore, getting rid of the enemy is the first step toward the comprehensive cleansing of society.
  1. The belief in the capacity of every society to purify and regenerate itself by a willful act that involves the violent elimination of destructive parasites.
  1. The belief in violence as a harsh necessity, and in the efficacy of final solutions as represented by massive bloodletting.
  1. The belief that existing institutions and other centers of power and influence must give way to the vision of the leader, instead of checking it.
  1. The belief that national unity is obligatory, and that the only choice we face today is that between a dictatorship and a narco state.

Is our current thinking beginning to resemble any of these?  If it is, we should not have to wait for a future truth commission to call us to account for what we did or failed to do.  There’s still time to rethink our views.