Blood on the President’s hands

So often has President Duterte commanded others to kill that it has become the most ordinary thing to hear in his public speeches. Just last Wednesday, while addressing an audience of local officials from various cities and municipalities, he casually told his listeners: “Your bishops, kill them. Those stupid people are useless. All they do is criticize.” There was murmuring in the audience, but also some muffled laughter. How is one supposed to take what the President is saying?

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, as usual, tried to soften Mr. Duterte’s latest rant against leaders of the Catholic Church, calling it a “hyperbole” uttered for “dramatic effect.” He said: “We should be getting used to this President. He actually means stop criticizing and do some good for this country.”

If, indeed, telling people to kill has lost shock value and has become merely a way of talking, then perhaps the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman was correct. “Evil has been fully and truly trivialized, and what really counts among the consequences is that we have been, or are rapidly being, made insensitive to its presence and manifestations.”

In short, by its daily repetition as a threat and as an event, killing has made us numb. We are all becoming passive bystanders to its intrinsic horror.

In here, ironically, we might find the reason for Mr. Duterte’s continued popularity: that he is able to express without reservation the frustrations and resentments we feel when the world seems, in our view, incapable of solving its problems. We start to entertain dark thoughts about “final solutions,” and feel drawn to figures that seem to manifest the will to carry them out.

Indeed, nothing conveys a sense of finality more graphically than the language of killing. This was what made Hitler such a compelling figure — his ability to make mass extermination appear so ordinary. What the writer Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” is exactly what it is.

It bypasses reason: People don’t feel obliged to offer logical accounts of their motives to justify doing evil. What is to be done about drug offenders? Just kill; they are not human anymore. What about suspected narcopoliticians? They’re destroying the country; kill them all. What is to be done about noisy critics and meddlesome priests? They’re hypocrites; just kill them. And the list gets longer. Even before we realize it, we have become its enablers. How many would not wish it for corrupt public officials who deftly manage to elude the normal mechanisms of justice?

But, the command to kill, when it comes from the President — no matter in what form it is given — carries a special resonance. In the 12th century, the English King Henry II expressed his extreme irritation with his former friend, Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, in these words: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” On Dec. 29, 1170, four knights rode to Canterbury and hacked Becket to death. The king denied he ordered Becket’s murder, yet he took no action against the knights who killed him. Becket’s death shook the empire and produced a “Becket cult.” Shortly after, he was declared a martyr and a saint.

Even as I fear for the safety of my brother, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, whose criticism of the drug killings, especially in his diocese, has earned him the ire of President Duterte, I am not sure if Mr. Duterte’s minions would be crazy enough to indulge the President’s wish to “kill all the bishops.” Yet, under this President, and given the nastiness of our time, anything is possible.

Every day, the killing of ordinary people continues. These are people whose humble circumstances and lack of prominence make them vulnerable, and dispensable. Their death, whether in the hands of the police or of so-called vigilantes, goes largely unnoticed and unlamented outside their circle of kin and neighbors. It is they — the poor and the nameless — who have become easy targets of the Duterte drug war’s killing machine.

Responding to a Supreme Court resolution, the Philippine National Police has reported a total of 22,983 cases of killings classified as “deaths under inquiry” during the current administration. Of this number, the PNP acknowledges close to 5,000 deaths as “drug war casualties.” These numbers no longer shock the public as much as they did at the beginning of this government’s murderous drug campaign. What people dread most nowadays is being included in the list of drug personalities.  Many keep quiet, fearing that their names might land in the dreaded list.

“For those encounters by the police, the 4,000 plus, I assume full responsibility and I will answer for it. And if I have to go to jail, I will go to jail, so be it,” Mr. Duterte declared in that speech before local government officials. This haughty readiness by the President to take full responsibility, however, will not shield the police who kill in response to his reckless orders from prosecution. The police officers who killed the defenseless 17-year-old high school student Kian Loyd delos Santos in the course of a police operation are now in jail.

Convicted of murder by Caloocan City Regional Trial Court Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr. on the strength of the courageous testimony of eyewitnesses, police officers Arnel Oares, Jeremias Pereda and Jerwin Cruz will perhaps never comprehend nor accept responsibility for the crime they committed. In their view, they were following a command. As the writer Elias Canetti explains it: “[W]ith them the command becomes destiny and they make it their pride to surrender to it blindly, as though it were particularly manly to blind oneself.”