Meanness of spirit

In the dark days of apartheid in South Africa, detainees who, despite being white, resolutely opposed the white supremacist regime, were often subjected to mean punishment. The scholar and writer Ruth First, charged with treason, was the first white woman to be jailed under the so-called 90-Day Detention Law.

In her memoir, “117 Days,” she recalls how, after being held in solitary confinement for 90 days, she was told she was free to go. Her jailers let her make a phone call to her family so she could be fetched. Then, as she prepared to leave, all dressed up for that joyous day, she was told she was being rearrested.

She writes: “Left to face my second round of ninety days, I was filled with loathing and bitterness against the Security Branch detectives who had stage-managed my humiliating phony release and then rearrest; but I was also overcome, for perhaps the first time since my initial arrest, by a wave of self-pity… I sat on the edge of the bed, still in my navy outfit, and shook with sobs.”

One can only suppose that this is more or less how President  Duterte wants Sen. Antonio Trillanes to feel after invalidating the amnesty the previous administration had granted to the young senator, and ordering his immediate rearrest. He probably expects to see this angry rebel, who has minced no words in his attacks against him, lower his head, helpless in his loathing and bitterness.

If so, Mr. Duterte and his willing band of enablers and implementers do not know a thing about the spirit of defiant heroism. Ruth First never gave her captors “the satisfaction of an outburst that would reveal my feelings.” She struggled to keep a “tight hold on my emotions and to let no sound of them escape me,” until she knew she was completely by herself.

One expects no less from Sonny Trillanes or, for that matter, from another jailed senator, Leila de Lima. They may occasionally cry or feel depressed.  But they have proven themselves to be brave souls beyond intimidation. Trillanes, a veteran of prison life and an irrepressible rebel against all injustice and corruption, seems to flourish even more when he is targeted. Bolstered by her unshakable faith in God and by the steady support of family and friends, De Lima keeps busy in detention issuing her own critical analysis of the nation’s situation, and shows no signs of despair, exhaustion or regret.

If an assassin’s bullet or poison does not stop them, they will surely outlive Mr. Duterte.

In contrast, by allowing his primal thirst for vengeance to define his presidency, and by finding common cause with those who seek to regain public esteem after the people had rejected them for betraying the public’s trust, Mr. Duterte has hardly any time left for the urgent matters that demand the singular attention of the nation’s highest office. Rushing back from another overseas trip, he is no doubt haunted by the thought that some of history’s tyrants lost their positions while they were abroad.

He comes home to a country reeling from the effects of rapid inflation, the sharp depreciation of the peso, and, amid a sustained decline in the value of stock market shares, a growing skepticism about the nation’s future. The people may care little for what happens to De Lima and Trillanes, perhaps even seeing in their travails a warranted comeuppance. But, they will not keep quiet when the prices of food and other basic necessities begin to rise way beyond their earning capacities, when the purchasing power of their money is depleted daily, when they lose their jobs, and when they see their children die from lack of medicines and medical care. That is when they begin to ask where the President is, or whether he knows what he is doing.

For many people, the economy, the law, and politics itself, are complex things that only a few can really fathom.  But, they can quickly sense when their leaders are being honest with them, or when they are feeding them nonsense.

Revoking the amnesty that freed Senator Trillanes in 2010 on the ground that he never filed an application for amnesty and never admitted guilt is utter nonsense. Ignoring news videos showing him swearing to the truthfulness of the information he wrote in his amnesty application, the government insists he must produce a certified true copy of his application for amnesty because the original allegedly could not be found in the government’s files. Unless there is valid reason to think that Trillanes’ amnesty had been fraudulently obtained, to demand to see the application form is sheer persecution and harassment.

We apply for all kinds of documents during our lifetime—passport, a driver’s license, a clearance, a marriage license, etc.—knowing fully well that we are not expected to keep a certified true copy of the application itself. We make sure we have the passport, license, permit or certificate at hand when demanded by persons in authority. But, the duty to keep the various forms that have to be accomplished in the course of the application process lies solely with the government office or agency concerned.

The primary function of the law in any society is to stabilize expectations about what is allowed and what is not. Without law, behavior would be subject to the whims of the powerful. All contracts, licenses, passports and government-issued permits would be treated as fake, unless the bearer could prove that he or she went through the entire process of applying. There is no apt word to describe this Kafkaesque attitude but meanness of spirit.