Killings that showcase our insecurities

Three cases of shocking killings have hogged the news headlines this past week. The most brazen is the daylight assassination of Negros Oriental Gov. Roel Degamo on March 4 by killers in military uniform inside his own compound, in the presence of his security guards and constituents. Eight other persons were killed in the same attack. Because of the political prominence of the principal victim and the suspected mastermind, this case has received the most sustained media coverage.

But the most tragic is the death by hazing of 24-year-old Adamson University student, John Matthew Salilig, after an initiation rite of the Adamson Chapter of the Tau Gamma Phi fraternity last Feb. 18. Gripped by panic, members of the fraternity dumped the young man’s lifeless body in a shallow grave in Cavite, where it was found 10 days later.

The third set of killings, which happened on March 9, is the most gruesome and perhaps the most emblematic of the unintended social costs of our country’s longstanding program to deploy Filipino workers overseas. Four defenseless children, ages 6 to 14, were repeatedly stabbed by the live-in partner of their mother who was away in Saudi Arabia working as a domestic helper. The suspect, 38-year-old tricycle driver Felimon Escalona, with whom the kids lived in Barangay Cabuco, Trece Martires City in Cavite, later took his own life using the same knife.

It is my view that, though they differ widely in circumstances, these three cases share one thing in common: they portray the basic insecurities that torment us as a nation. Here, I will tackle the Negros Oriental assassination only briefly because the media attention it has received has been quite comprehensive. I will instead devote the greater part of this column to the other two killings.

The murder of Degamo exemplifies the role that violence comes to play when elections are monopolized by dynastic political clans bent on consolidating their power. As fully armed as they may be, such families remain essentially insecure unless they are able to eliminate or coopt the other. Because of these families’ monopolistic control of public office, economic resources, and means of violence, the political field leaves hardly any room for new and independent leaders. The cycle of reciprocal killings can continue for a long time, enlisting successive generations of the same families until the national government is forced to intervene to put one of the families permanently out of business. What happened to the Ampatuans of Maguindanao is a case in point.

The death of the neophyte John Matthew Salilig in the hands of his own would-be fraternity brothers has once again triggered public outrage against fraternities in general and the culture of physical initiation or hazing from which they cannot seem to get away. There is no other word for it but tragic. Having joined a fraternity myself in my youth, I cannot avoid feeling the sting of that outrage.

There ought to be less barbaric ways of testing an applicant’s determination and instilling a deep sense of loyalty to the organization. Accordingly, concerned fratmen have wracked their brains searching for a way to reconcile the wish to preserve the value of frat membership by making it difficult to join, and the compelling need to remove hazing from the list of permissible initiation procedures.

Interestingly enough, what is not examined as thoughtfully is the powerful motive that drives many young people to seek affiliation in these organizations, regardless of the risks involved. The so-called “need to belong” syndrome doesn’t fully capture the complex sentiments at work here. The ties that bind members of the same fraternity to one another are deep and extensive; they transcend political differences. Fraternity brothers are expected to lend lifelong support to one another, especially in times of dire need. They rejoice in each other’s personal successes.

The reciprocal obligations that these ties entail are expected to apply to all past and present members of the fraternity. In a sharply unequal society like ours, where opportunities for advancement are heavily shaped by personal connections, one can imagine what fraternity affiliation can do. It may or may not take one very far, but one can be sure it will open doors. In this manner do prestigious fraternities tap into the ambition and insecurity that grip young people at the starting point of their professional careers in order to recruit the best of a generation.

Lastly, I turn to the horrific killings in Trece Martires, Cavite. Of the three incidents I discuss here, this one has merited the least media attention. And yet, it is arguably the closest to the everyday world of Filipinos who have had to leave their young children behind so they could work abroad and hopefully earn enough to give their families a better future.

The uncertainties, the fears, and the nightmares that trouble OFWs when, being so far away, they could check on their children only by the occasional phone call or text — all these have suddenly come alive with brutal familiarity in this single incident. “I thought he would take care of them,” the distraught mother told the news program TV Patrol the other night. The man had scribbled a note in blood on one of the walls: “Pasensya na. Mahal kita (Sorry, I love you).” This message gave her no consolation, but she seemed to know what it signified. An article titled “Killing your children to hurt your partner” calls it “revenge filicide,” the ultimate crime of resentful insecurity.