“I Am Become Death”

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form, and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

— J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1965

On February 25, 2017, before a throng of supporters in Luneta, Sandra Cam stood before a throng of avid Duterte supporters to proclaim: “Masarap ang pumatay at mamatay para sa bayan.”


Sourced from Rappler

It was a statement that, considering many things about the news, has died a speedy, natural death: not with political maneuvering in the Senate and our dalliances with “leaks.” At least in this country, to write the news is to record hurried moments in the present and to forget them the next day: after all, bigger and more important things happen tomorrow.

Less than a year into his presidency, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has probably talked about “death” and its synonyms more than all past Presidents combined. Duterte, as it seems, taps into the primal: in a world where the wheels of justice turn ever so painfully slowly, the President provides haste and promises urgency. And if it means to kill, so be it.

It’s a certain single-mindedness that emboldens the likes of Cam to make remarks like that. It’s a certain single-mindedness that empowers people like DOJ Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III to encourage supporters to call for the imprisonment—or whatever fate awaits—Sen. Antonio Trillanes III. It’s a certain single-mindedness that has Congress in a frenzy to pass the death penalty.

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Master Strokes

There are a lot of things the Duterte administration gets right about their “war on drugs.” True: like many social ills, many things about drugs can be traced to the upper echelons of society. True: many anti-drug government programs in previous administrations did not go far enough to have lasting effects. True: drugs are a big problem in society, and cannot be ignored in a conversation about peace and order. Needless to say, this government is enthusiastic about the drug program. Thousands of addicts have already surrendered, with no other reason than fear of the President.

But it does get a lot of things wrong. And one blog entry wouldn’t suffice for that. So at the risk of sounding nitpicky about the Duterte drug war, let’s head on over to that one thing that they really bungled.

On August 7, in the wee hours of the morning, President Duterte took to Camp Panacan to deliver one of his trademark soliloquies, and read aloud a list of over 150 government and police officers allegedly involved in the drug trade. The key word: “allegedly.” Needless to say, Duterte’s one for command responsibility: he took it upon himself to take responsibility for mistakes and errors that the list may have. Because my God, he hates drugs.

Now there will always be denial, but Duterte kind of missed out on a few things. For all the hectoring claims about the list being “verified,” the list missed out on a judge who died in 2008, or how a mayor he tagged passed away in 2014. But no less than Martin Andanar would call the list a “masterstroke,” and Bato Dela Rosa would shrug off errors in the list: to the mind of the new “icon” of the drug war, we’re probably focusing too much on the mistakes and too little on the gains.

And then there are Sec. Andanar’s soundbites too, but then again these things can always be taken out of context.

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Tricky Revolutions

In yesterday’s paper, F. Sionil José began his essay with the word “revolution,” and proceeded to discuss what he called “the Duterte revolution” in ways that aren’t revolutionary. He describes the next few years in the same way a propagandist would describe his demagogue, or how a campaign manager would describe his client: the florid banalities of ”sacrifice” and “ethics,” the attacks on old enemies like “oligarchs” and “privilege.” And yes, the tired and hackneyed platitudes that are supposed to get a rise out of “the people:” in Mr. José’s words, a “revolution is rooted in ethics and patriotism.”

I guess that the reason why we use the word “revolution” a lot—mostly outside its intended meaning—is because of our desire to participate in one. We want to be part of those historical milestones that fundamentally change the way we live. So much so, that we’re willing to accommodate anything as a “revolution,” fundamental changes to our lives be damned. Such that “revolutionary” things become mundane: socio-political revolutions become as revolutionary as, say, home TV shopping products.

And this is not to take anything away from President Rodrigo Duterte’s victory (maybe other than the poetic language his most ardent supporters want to lend it): it is a triumph of our electoral process. That itself is probably “revolutionary” to a voting population so accustomed to cheating and painfully slow canvassing. It’s what happens when institutions work the way they’re supposed to. Still, it’s founded on things that are in dire need of “revolution:” political institutions that are still in disrepair, processes that aren’t intact, and the great burdens to the public.

And there’s where the trickiness lies.

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The Breaking

The soldiers brought the victim to a holding cell, his hands bound with rope and his feet shackled with chains. The room was barren, save for a couple of bamboo cots. The room reeked of things you would expect from places like these: sweat, urine, and animal dung that wafted from the boarded-up windows. In the room flickered the light of a solitary gas lantern, casting a pallid yellow glow on the cracked concrete floor.

“San Juanico,” the commanding officer said curtly, as if referring to the bridge miles—or perhaps a short walk, who knows—miles away. The crickets chirped a little louder. A lone rooster crowed in the distance. The prisoner’s eyes, swollen from lack of sleep and bruised from the unforgiving blows of truncheons, lit up in fear; the whites of his eyeballs piercing the darkness briefly.

“San Juanico” was nothing more than a euphemism for the torture invented by the Marcos regime at the height of Martial Law. Countless activists have been made to suffer the sentence, named after the great bridge that connected two of the country’s poorest islands. The bridge was a marvel that would be shared in postcards for generations to come; the torture was a memory best left forgotten by those who miraculously survived it.

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