Three-year-old Myka Ulpina was shot by police officers in the course of a bloody drug raid that targeted her father, Renato Dolorfina, on June 30 in Rodriguez, Rizal. Police spokesperson Bernard Banac explained what happened thus: “In that situation, it cannot be helped if there was an accident… if he used his daughter as a human shield.”
Reportage on this tragic incident would probably have ended there were it not for newly elected Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s dismissive remark, “Shit happens.” It’s slang, of course, and, very likely, all that the former Philippine National Police chief meant to say was: “It happens.” But, having just been elected senator of the land, he might have felt entitled to mimic the accustomed vulgarity of the President. What came out was not only a callous but also a disrespectful way to refer to an innocent child’s death in the hands of police officers. His own fellow senators have justly castigated him for this careless statement.
Nothing in what he said offered any assurance that the incident would be investigated, or that everything would be done so that children of drug suspects are not harmed during these police operations.
Indeed, it happens — in fact, too often under this administration. Before Myka, there was Danica May Garcia, 5 years old, of Pangasinan, who in August 2016 bled to death in their kitchen from a bullet intended for her grandfather, a drug suspect. And before Danica May, there was 4-year-old Skyler Abatayo of Cebu City, who was killed by a stray bullet that was fired in the course of a drug bust in their neighborhood. The circumstances of their death are more or less the same: They were caught in the burst of fire that has typically marked the deadly antidrug campaign of this administration.
Child protection groups have recorded more than a hundred children killed in such drug operations since July 2016. This number does not include the tens of thousands of traumatized orphans who have been left to fend for themselves following the death or detention of their parents for drug offenses. One would think the government would at least feel obliged to take care of the needs of these innocent children. When shit happens, somebody has to take responsibility for the mess that it creates.
But, as Mr. Duterte put it in response to the Gem-Ver 1 crew’s cry for help after being rammed by a Chinese boat: “Sorry, talagang ganoon (that’s the way it is).” If he felt like using big but painless words, he might simply have said, as though he were invoking a scientific truth, “It’s Murphy’s law.”
However, it is said, the message is the same. It comes down to a refusal to look deeper into events and their making. It is to offer a general account of what happened without the duty to elaborate or, much less, to assign responsibility, or to make amends. Indeed, in most instances, the message may even imply the unspoken subtext: “It’s partly your fault — for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
This is the arrogance of the autocrat, who believes that his subjects need only take his words on faith. That he is doing all these things for the country, particularly its young people. That there will be costs, including tragic events that no one wants or expects. Beyond this, as far as he is concerned, he owes the nation no further explanation.
This pernicious indifference to the consequences of the use of the coercive powers of the State seems to have infected other public officials. Basking in the reflected popularity of President Duterte, some men like Sen. Bato dela Rosa think they can talk and behave like their idol and expect to be applauded for it. They are grossly mistaken. The veneer of authenticity, which seems to shield Mr. Duterte from public condemnation despite his crude and impulsive language, is not necessarily transferable.
The people have a strange relationship to those who run the country. They are easily mesmerized by uncommon individuals who are not cut from the same traditional political fabric, who exhibit a reckless disregard for the trappings and conventions of power, and who speak with candor and simplicity. The public is enchanted by them, and nothing seems powerful enough to break this enchantment.
But, as in everything, there’s a tipping point to this stupor. It always begins with a sense of being betrayed or fooled. It comes when the leader manifestly and repeatedly fails to deliver on his promises. But even this may not be enough to tilt the balance. The failure has to be compounded by a fundamental weakness in character never seen before — the inability to show compassion and to acknowledge responsibility.
Until that point is reached, the name of the game is trust. It is what our people have given President Duterte. Under the umbrella of that generalized trust, he can more or less do what he wants to do with the power he wields. And that includes the privilege to say, “Shit happens.”
But not for long will he be able to say this without admitting responsibility.