THE American writer William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was also a lifelong doctor of medicine. In one of his short stories, “The Use of Force,” the narrator-physician recalls making a house call to check on a little girl who, her parents suspect, has caught diphtheria during an outbreak of that disease among children.
When asked to do so by the doctor and her parents so her throat can be examined, the girl refuses to open her mouth. The doctor then uses brute strength to force her mouth open even if it hurts her. Although he admits that his prevailing over the girl gave him an unsettling feeling of pleasure, he nevertheless tries to justify the use of force as necessary for her own good.
The Williams story provides a disturbing insight into how power feeds on and is sustained by violence, how force is too often the first choice of the powerful to impose their will on others, and how its exercise can be intoxicating. The use of force is in this sense as pathological as diphtheria or COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019).
Those who have power over others thus dismiss the harm that the use of violence against the weak and defenseless does, and they even justify it as necessary for the victim’s own sake. Not only Ferdinand Marcos used his own version of that argument — he dismantled the Republic to “save” it — in justifying his declaration of Martial Law in 1972. Filipinos have since heard politicians of various stripes issuing such inane variations of it as that curtailing free expression is protective of democracy, that human rights have nothing to do with human lives, or that war is the way to peace. But only in the last four years has the use of violence been as consistently and openly defended and used as State policy.
Even before his election to the highest office of the land, then candidate Rodrigo Duterte was already declaring that he would save the country from the allegedly widespread problem of illegal drugs by killing as many as 100,000 people. Within months of his assuming the presidency he had partially made good on that promise, and triggered the worst human rights crisis in the Philippines since the Marcos dictatorship.
Over the last three years, Mr. Duterte has repeatedly justified the use of force rather than due process and the rule of law, and what the police is doing because it is supposedly necessary to protect everyone including the youth — some of whom, like 15-year-old Kian de Los Santos, were among those extrajudicially killed for “fighting back” during alleged police anti-drug operations.
Until the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the Duterte regime was still resisting the call for a humane, rehabilitative approach to drug addiction. It was also ignoring the widespread and growing demand to focus on curbing the entry of illegal drugs into the country. Admittedly, however, the number of drug-related extrajudicial killings has dropped over the last two years partly because of international outrage and partly because, as Mr. Duterte himself has admitted, the drug problem has persisted despite his kill-them-all policy.
But the use of unaccountable violence has continued. It has partly shifted to what may be described as the second stage of the human rights crisis — the“Tokhang” killings marked the first — that Mr. Duterte created: the systematic suppression of dissent and political and social activism. Farmers have been killed for demanding land reform, indigenous people’s communities militarized, and regime critics and suspected members of the New People’s Army (NPA) as well as of its supposedly allied legal mass organizations arrested and detained on manufactured charges, and even murdered.
It was inevitable for the same reliance on the use of force and other forms of State coercion to dominate the regime’s bumbling attempts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The overwhelming presence of police and military personnel in Mr. Duterte’s initial declaration of a lockdown in the National Capital Region was the first sign that he was militarizing the government response, such as it was, to the public health coronavirus crisis. This was followed by the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (Republic Act 11469) that his congressional accomplices passed in record time, which gives Mr. Duterte extraordinary powers. In addition, he has banned mass gatherings, restricted movement, and mobilized the military, while the police arrest alleged violators of quarantine rules and those who supposedly spread false information (“fake news”).
These and subsequent events suggest that the Philippine human rights crisis has indeed entered a third and no less dangerous stage than stages one and two.
Last March, 21 people who were asking for government help were arrested and detained, to which Mr. Duterte reacted by declaring over national TV that he was ordering the police to “shoot dead” future violators of his ban on mass assemblies. He also promised to “bury” them,
In April, a Cebu businesswoman was arrested without a warrant for a satirical Facebook post. In the same month, a Makati homeowner was assaulted by the police for objecting to the police’s entering his yard to arrest his househelp for not wearing a face mask.
Several Quezon City barangay thugs beat up a fish vendor for the same offense. And as if in obedience to Mr. Duterte’s TV announcement that he was ordering the police to “shoot dead” violators of quarantine rules, also in Quezon City, a former Philippine Army corporal was shot and killed by the police.
During a television appearance two weeks before the April 30 end of the Enhanced Community Quarantine in metro Manila and surrounding provinces that the government extended to May 15, Mr. Duterte threatened to declare martial law and arrest members of such legal organizations as the human rights defenders’ group Karapatan.
On the very first day of May, 42 people including a lawyer who were protesting the murder of a political activist in Iloilo City were arrested and accused of illegal assembly among other offenses.
Eighteen student volunteers and community leaders who were running a soup kitchen in Quezon City have also been arrested on the claim that feeding their hungry countrymen is illegal.
As indicative as they are of how the use of force, intimidation, and coercion as policy has been accepted by much of the civilian and military bureaucracy without question, these incidents won’t be the last.
With the loss of their livelihoods and the threat to their health and lives, what most of the people need are the means to tide them over, and some assurance that the government has the vision, the competence and the will to revive the economy, prevent a second wave of infections, and generally, to oversee a return to normal after the fear and trauma of the pandemic. But the much publicized social amelioration program has benefited only a small number of poor families, and much of what the government is doing is adding to the uncertainties and the suffering that many are going through in this time of national peril.
The Philippine experience has amply demonstrated that the use of force, as materially, politically and pathologically rewarding as it may be to presidents, police and military enforcers, and even barangay goons and other low-lifes, simply doesn’t solve anything. Apparently, however, that lesson is lost on this country’s self-serving and ineffectual ruling elite and bureaucracy that some political scientists have quite accurately described as predatory and among the worst in Asia.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).