Ninoy Aquino was no saint. Achieving heroic virtue –which is what sanctity is—is hardly possible in the grey world of politics.
His early life was an exercise in career-building so he could restore the family name, disgraced by his father’s collaboration with the Japanese which made him one of the most hated men in the country during the war. His early career in politics was unusual only in that it represented a meteoric rise: youngest mayor, youngest governor, those were his claim to fame. He was eloquent, but also considered glib by quite a few; he was intelligent, but then there are many keen minds in politics, not all of them using their talents for the public good. He could have been president, though we don’t know what kind he would have been. Some believed he would be as, or more, ruthless than Marcos; others felt he understood the social volcano that was our society and would side with reform.
Ninoy Aquino was no saint but he became a hero, because unlike religion, heroism can coexist with complexity. It can, and often does, thrive in the grey murkiness of political and public life precisely because both lead us to points of decision where we can choose to serve something greater than ourselves, those abstract but meaningful things given grand names like freedom, democracy, decency.
Ferdinand Marcos viewed Ninoy as enemy number one. That is why the very first person arrested as September 22 gave way to September 23, was Aquino.
One of his fellow prisoners later recalled how, after being finger-printed in Camp Crame, Ninoy and several others were put on a bus. Ninoy told his fellow prisoners, if the bus reached Buendia and turned right, it meant they were going to Luneta to be shot. Along the way, he saw people standing by the side of road, staring at them, faces full of curiosity but without any signs of sympathy. “Look at our people,” Ninoy told his seatmate, Napoleon Rama, “They know that we’ve been fighting for their rights, that we’ve risked our lives and that freedoms have been taken away from them, and yet, they are not doing anything… Look at them, they’re just watching us, curious, so, I don’t think there’s hope for the Filipino.”
That was the human and expected reaction for someone falling from power: bitterness at how quickly the applause of yesterday turns into the indifference of today. As one of his early co-prisoners later wrote, “Every year in prison is a year thrown away out of the limited span of man’s life; it is the death penalty by installment: life without freedom is not life.” Of all those he arrested in the dead of night, Ninoy was the one Marcos kept in jail the longest. He subjected him to trial by a kangaroo court; he and Jose W. Diokno were placed in isolation cells; he, and his regime, and a society conditioned to obey, ostracized his family.
And here is where Ninoy changed. We are told he rediscovered his faith. He also discovered something alien to the restless ambitions of a politician: the quiet stillness, the surprising strength, of a developing conscience. Unable to make speeches, he relied on his pen; deprived of human contact except when rationed out by the dictator, he became filled with empathy and the kind of imagination that allows you to transcend your past and envision a future where rich or poor, Moro or Cordilleran, radical or conservative, could live together on the basis of something other than fear and the surrender of your rights. Most of all it allowed him to take a leap of faith that to this day, we don’t fully appreciate.
That leap of faith was to give Marcos, who had deprived a nation of choices, the freedom of choice. He would come home to a sick and dying Marcos and appeal to his sense of history, to whatever remained of what must have been there once upon a time, some sort of instinct to serve the public good.
As he told the late Teodoro M. Locsin, “First, he must step down. Resign. He has had so many years of power! Now, he can resign. He can retire from public office to the thanks of a grateful people that will forget what it had suffered in its joy at being free again. We are a forgiving people. What a graceful exit that would be from power. He’ll go with honor.” Locsin shook his head, later called Ninoy naïve –but marveled at his bravery.
Ninoy was not naïve. There was logic in the choice he wanted to offer Marcos. There was logic to his coming home at a time, we often forget, no one knew if the dictator had long to live, and where Manila swirled with rumors about who was poised –or posing—to seize power in the vacuum that would exist the moment the dictator died. Whoever actually ordered the assassination remains unclear because clarity is impossible in such a confused situation; the most our legal system could do was put some low-ranking people in jail but even there, President Arroyo took it upon herself to pardon them. A typical parting gift to Ninoy’s widow, then dying of cancer.
Not just Marcos but his minions had made their choice. Ninoy came home to die, and the entire country and the world bore witness to it. And it was the calm embrace of the possibility of it, that made even those still skeptical of Ninoy, recognize his heroism for what it was. As Raissa Robles later wrote, it was the brazenness of it, on the part of a regime that had already murdered so many, but usually in darkness, and thus beyond the public’s view, that was the tipping point.
How often have we heard it said a picture is worth a thousand words? Even if to this day you do not consider Ninoy a hero, review those last seconds of his life, as he was taken from the plane to the tube and then down the stairs on which he was shot, and you have to ask what sort of regime was so afraid of unarmed words that a bullet was the only answer?
Marcos then, as many still do today, argued the bullet was needed to enforce discipline and peace. Locsin, reflecting in 1986, had an answer to this argument. “The gun makes all challenge ineffectual. The mind becomes dull. Absolute power does not only corrupt absolutely, it stupefies. There is no need for intelligence when the guns serves. The blade of the mind rusts. Absolute power brings absolute stupidity.” This is why Marcos and Imelda were later shocked, we’re told, to see the outpouring of grief for Ninoy.
This is why the adulation of recent months has given way to a fearful pause, when people saw that now infamous CCTV footage of a 17-year-old kid named Kian delos Santos. There comes a moment, without exception, for all who hold power, when they take a step too far, and the public recoils, whether in disgust, disappointment, anger, or all three.
It has nothing to do with what sort of person the victim was or wasn’t and everything to do with what those who hold a monopoly on legitimate force are not supposed to be: not just stupid, but criminally so. Because once committed, the only justice possible is to merely make an example of the trigger-happy while pointedly ignoring the reasons for their becoming trigger-happy in the first place. We saw this utter defeat on Karen Davila’s show, as the father of Kian gave short answers and pleaded with the President for something to be done, though we all know he knows as well as anyone does, that his plea is addressed to the person who made Kian’s death an inevitability.
This what Ninoy told a friend, as he prepared to go home. “When we start to feel the pain of those who have been victimized by tyranny,” Ninoy said, “it’s only then we can liberate ourselves… The feeling right now is ‘Fred was tortured, thank God it’s Fred, not me.’ That’s the tragic part. Society is atomized. Until the Filipino nation can feel the loss of one life as if it was their own, we’ll never liberate ourselves.”
Let this thought be his bequest to you.