Normalizing the state of emergency

One of the unforeseen consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is the way it has conditioned the public to obey police orders without question. Law enforcement, not public service, has become the dominant motif of governance. The original rationale of emergency quarantine measures—the protection of public health—has been reconfigured as the protection of public safety against all threats.

This is the context in which the new Anti-Terrorism Act, recently passed by both houses of Congress and now awaiting the signature of President Duterte, must be understood. This sweeping law takes advantage of a pandemic-induced emergency to create a permanent state of exception.

The Italian writer Rocco Ronchi puts it this way: “The isolation, the mistrust and suspicion the virus causes, make it alternatively ‘populist’ and ‘sovereignist.’ The emergency measures it forces upon us seem to universalize the ‘state of exception’ that the present has inherited from the political theology of the twentieth century, confirming Foucault’s thesis that modern sovereign power is biopolitical (a power that is articulated in the production, management and administration of ‘life’).”

For the generation born after 1972, martial law existed largely in the imagination. Today, they have a concrete idea of what it means for the state and its agents to have control over nearly every aspect of everyday life. They do not like what they see, and they are determined to resist any attempt to normalize it. That is the reason young students have been at the forefront of the protests against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

The digital generation may be physically isolated, but they are not disconnected. They don’t wait for the newspapers to be delivered, nor do they have to tune in to the radio or TV to get a sense of what’s happening. Social media is all they need to access the world outside, and to connect to the virtual communities that constitute modern society as they know it.

I did not realize the full extent of this digital connectedness until early this week, when my 19-year-old granddaughter Julia told me with great alarm that the passage of the anti-terrorism bill was being rushed in the Lower House of Congress. Nothing in what our politicians do surprises me anymore. But, what gave me pause was the sense of urgency with which my granddaughter regarded the stealthy passage of this obnoxious measure. “I’m joining the protest at the Oblation,” she announced. I had not known this child to be political. I felt a surge of hope.

Have you read the bill? I asked. She thoughtfully nodded, and offered to send me the link to a PDF of the bill. She was evidently well-informed. “Lolo, did you know that, under this law, you could be arrested for joining an organization that has been declared a ‘terrorist’ group by the anti-terrorism council to be appointed by the President?” It was my first time to hear of such a council. More comments followed: “Did you know that, under this law, you could be arrested and detained for up to 24 days without charges, that your phone could be tapped, and that you could be placed under surveillance as a suspected terrorist?”

Not having read the bill at that point, I was keen to learn more from this young woman whom I’ve always admired for the clarity of her mind and the thoroughness with which she does research. “The term ‘terrorism’ itself is so broad and vague in its usage,” she went on, “that nearly anything can be made to fall under it.” But, surely, I countered, there must be provisions there that exclude ordinary protest, criticism, and dissent from its scope. “Oh yes,” she said. “There is such a provision, but, do you think that will stop the police from arresting you?”

At once, the memory of my arrest at a rally in February 2006 came rushing back to me. For daring to leave my group in order to approach a police general whom I thought I knew, I was collared and led to an unmarked police vehicle as soon as I crossed the street. Operatives in plainclothes immediately surrounded me, and, if it were not for the presence of the media, I was sure I would have been roughed up. At the police station, I and Ronald Llamas, who had tried to prevent me from being taken away, were told that a state of national emergency had been proclaimed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Later, we were both charged with, among others, “inciting to sedition.”

Assisted by colleagues from the UP College of Law, I went to the Supreme Court to question the constitutionality of my arrest. Not long after, an independent high court, led by Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, struck out the national emergency proclamation for being unconstitutional. That landmark ruling, known as David v. Arroyo, was penned by Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez.

The Anti-Terrorism Act contains the same insidious traps in the form of crimes like: “threat to commit terrorism,” “proposal to commit terrorism,” “conspiracy to commit terrorism,” etc. You may be standing in the middle of a rally, surrounded by placards carrying fiery messages, and suddenly find yourself arrested for “inciting to commit terrorism.”

We have seen how, under Mr. Duterte, the police have become emboldened to abuse their powers. We have seen how, during this pandemic, thousands of ordinary people have been summarily hauled to detention centers for violations of quarantine orders. We have, in the last four years, witnessed the steady erosion of the separation of powers and the autonomy of the different branches of government.

Do we really want to give this tyranny another law with which to choke what remains of our democracy?