Wednesday, August 18, 2010
THE BIG CHILL
There are times when words are superfluous.
A man writhing on the floor, limbs jerking, his torso twisting with every pull of a string; this classic of a Pavlovian experiment on pain hardly needs annotation. A group of uniformed men impassively watching this hardcore performance art; what words could possibly explain that obscenity?
Tears at the Commission on Human Rights; a flinch, nay, several, from its acting head Coco Quisumbing (a former journalist who must have seen her share of atrocities). A newsroom falling silent, a cry oR two punctuating every televised twitch of pain. Drivers huddled around the roadside cafeteria’s radio, imagining what they cannot see. Mothers and wives and children and lovers across the nation wondering: what if he was my husband, lover, brother, son?
There are places our minds can hardly bear to tread. The man pulling at that string; what psyche pulses within?
We know violence; we know rage. This is something else. The deliberate, methodical pacing of the lasso and the lash; the almost crooning “lessons” imparted with every jerk; the rapt attention on the face of the giving end of that rope.
Under other circumstances, that man would be in a straitjacket. In a world where might is often presented as proof of righteousness, that man is an officer of the law.
As was Himmler and every Nazi torturer. As was the man who left a bloody trail across Luzon and the Visayas – sometimes they are even called heroes. It is not surprising to hear Quisumbing say that the CHR has an investigation caseload of more than a hundred cases of torture.
There are crimes so heinous they sweep away every comfortable rationale we’ve ever used to explain why it is “okay” some of the time to violate civil liberties, or why a word like “basic” (as in rights) comes with exemptions. The Ampatuan massacre is one crime, the torture of this still unknown man is another.
Let us rage, yes. And demand justice, yes.
But let us not forget that we are complicit in this crime – marginal accessories to be sure, but accessories all the same.
How many times have we shrugged off a murder of a journalist whose reputation was less than white as snow? How many times have we ranted (even silently), “kaya kayo pinapatay!” (that’s why they murder your ilk). When we think ignorance, uncouthness or even corruption is a good enough excuse for murder or any other form of violence, that’s a slippery slope we’re on.
When we accept, however, grudgingly that it is okay to kill an activist because he or she is probably playing footsie with communist guerrillas, we open the gates to all kinds of justification for murder.
When we cheer, however quietly, when old comrades are gunned down in the name of “people’s justice” we make work harder for defender of human rights.
When we praise berdugos for ridding our cities and towns of those pesky addicts, snatchers, holdup artists, we are saying, it’s okay for people in authority to violate the law if the result provides us a greater degree of comfort.
When we in media show footage of snatchers getting beaten up, or police precinct scenes of ordinary folk slapping and scratching at a suspect, and do not provide the all-important context – that this is a violation of a basic human rights -- we, too, are complicit in this.
So, too, when our race for ratings and circulation makes us drop the ball after a sensational week or two, as we go on to other stories that are breaking and, thus sexier, stories.
It is a heavy burden to impose on our sector, I know, but reality shows time and again that impunity is also partly due to short attention spans. There is no shortcut: conviction is what ultimately defeats a culture of impunity.
Democracy is messy, yes. We can understand why cops feel frustrated: they are overworked, underpaid, lacking of equipment and often at the mercy of imperious local government officials and their patrons in national government. You walk the tough streets of Tondo for a decade or so, you see criminals walk in and out of jail and hear your kids complain about not getting the education the children of other government officials enjoy – you’ll begin to ask if it’s worth it.
But there can be no other answer. There should be no other answer. Many years ago, a fine young police officer told me, in rather angry tones, while discussing a rubout he had personal knowledge of: “then why is it okay for rebels to kill?!” He went on to serve officials with a long list of massacres and murders to their names, and are now waging rearguard action against Lady Justice.
It is easy to weep for Cory, for Ninoy, for our heroes and our saints. The real test of our adherence to democracy and its principles is when the least lovable of our citizens face the gun and the blade and the whip as they are sacrificed at the altar of law and order.