THE LONG VIEW
A year of murder
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
THUS BEGINS A WELL-LOVED POEM, ROBERT Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Blame it on my unsophisticated, even literal (when it comes to poetic imagery), literary tastes, but the poem came to my mind because of three things: a story, an anniversary and a report.
This story was told to me, several weeks ago, by the person who washes my hair whenever I get my haircut. As so often happens, it began with my being asked, and expressing an opinion, on current events. What, I was gently asked, did I think of the militarization of the countryside. I said I opposed it.
Silence at first met my remark, and then, slowly, even diffidently, the story began to unfold. The salon attendant is from San Jose, Nueva Ecija. He gets to return home only on major holidays, and briefly, at that. But with every visit comes a sharing of tales among friends and family.
When the military showed up in their town, a great fact-checking began. Army men pored over barangay records to see who among the residents had records of some sort. Each and every one received a summons to the barangay hall: collectively, all were told, they would be watched from now on.
The nature of the records ranged from petty complaints to cases of actual crimes. No distinctions were made as to the nature or the gravity of the offenses: anyone who was a subject of any kind of documented complaint would henceforth be a person of interest to the military.
The salon attendant’s brother is a tricycle driver, and had a “record” (because of a quarrel with a driver of another vehicle) in the barangay. He, too, received his summons. He wasn’t able to make it at the appointed place and time, because he had a passenger at the time. When he did show up, the military manhandled him.
This indiscriminate attitude toward the town’s residents was combined, of course, with the better-known manifestations of military interests in rural areas: the demands for residence certificates; the monitoring of homes and residents; the haranguing of members of the community to denounce and oppose communists. Residents were even encouraged to support the administration”s efforts to amend the Constitution.
And what was your community’s experience with the New People’s Army, I asked? Only this, the salon attendant replied: There was a policeman who was notorious for his involvement in the drug trade. He was issued warnings and then liquidated by a communist hit squad.
And what is your community’s experience with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, I asked? Beyond the personal woes of his brother, the attendant replied, a feeling of fear and unease pervades their town. Because the military isn’t discriminating, a barangay complaint immediately results in an interrogation – people have learned to use the military to settle old grudges and old scores. Even an anonymous complaint by text brings the soldiers to one’s doorstep, not necessarily with fatal consequences; nonetheless, the experience leaves behind unpleasant, sometimes painful, memories.
Yesterday’s Edsa anniversary and the release of the Alston statement and the Melo report, combined with that story in San Jose, brought Frost’s poem to mind. It seems to me that quite a few people consider the Melo Report and the Alston statement a crossroads. They are not. The two documents are not a crossroads; the 20th anniversary of Edsa was. We reached that point of decision a year ago, and we, that is, the country, have been traveling the wide highway, the easy path, the fast lane to “economic progress” – but also, the cemetery lane since then.
To be sure, the oath leading to the crossroads began at different stages for different people: in 2001, in 2004, in 2005. The yellow wood has defined our existence since 1986, each crossroads within it until 2001 basically saw our sticking to the more difficult democratic path, the path of people power, the path of peace. We might stray from that path from time to time, but both leaders and followers would try to return to it.
Last year the crossroads was reached, and in the yellow wood that is our country, the decision was made to clear the forest: one by one, basic assumptions we had accepted since 1986 were cut down like so many trees: CPR was the official repudiation of protest as an integral part of the democratic process; EO 464 was the repudiation of the principle of checks and balances; the State of Emergency, the escalating – and sustained – assault on media whether through outright murder, the intimidation of owners, or the flood of suits filed in court by officials and non-officials alike, were the repudiation of the freedom of speech. We saw toothpicks made out of our freedoms, and too many hailed them as the signs of progress.
And so, as Frost’s poem concludes, so too must we conclude that too many have not taken the lonelier road – and will come to regret it. Unlike the poet who expressed an ultimate, though weary satisfaction with his less-traveled path – too many have refused to make a difference.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.