The grand bargain
There was a brief spasm of soul-searching in the wake of the behavior of some nurses at Tuburan District Hospital. The behavior of the nurses — “shocking indifference to and deliberate neglect of” a man riddled with bullets from a supposed shoot-out with cops, as yesterday’s Inquirer editorial put it — was at least acted upon by the authorities, leading to the nurses being fired. If the behavior of the nurses was appalling, then at least what seemed to be widespread outrage over their behavior is somewhat reassuring. We haven’t fully lost our communal (and individual) ability to be shocked.
The soul-searching (along the lines of what kind of a society is this, that has its own health workers unmoved by suffering and seemingly disinclined to live up to the Hippocratic Oath) involved mulling over the long-term consequences of the President’s so-called “war on drugs.” An incident that happened the day before the shooting in Cebu reinforces my belief that there is a simple trade-off that’s taken place, one I’ve described previously but which bears repeating. The trade-off is that the President gets to place himself above the law, by taking upon himself total responsibility for acts he has ordered his subordinates to undertake.
I leave it to academics to elaborate on the philosophical and other underpinnings of this development (start with “Führerprinzip,” Weber and charismatic leadership, and Ian Kershaw’s “Working Towards the Führer”). But, in practical terms, what we have at work in this simple, stark, all-encompassing arrogation unto himself of all responsibility—legal, spiritual, moral—for any and all effects of his policies, such as the “war on drugs,” is combining our society’s age-old passivity in the face of assertions of power with our version of the social compact—that obedience is premised on results, the most fundamental being instilling order.
From people who have conducted fieldwork among different sectors, a common observation seems to be that the President’s policy of liquidations comes as no surprise, since the use of force to deadly effect is a common enough reality in local governments. The difference is that, instead of simply being for partisan or personal gain, here, in the national liquidation scheme, it is ostensibly being done for the public good—and there are surveys aplenty to underscore that it is a fact that the public accepts this basic assertion, though tempered by the fear that it may turn out otherwise, after all. Hence a public that applauds the policy of liquidation, while confessing fear over how those chosen for liquidation may not be rigorously vetted at all.
But again, it’s the simple trade-off that upholds the President as not only supreme law enforcer, but also supreme in that one-word expression of that innermost desire of the population for order to come out of chaos: “Will,” more often than not prefaced with “political,” which whitewashes a desire for ruthlessness with a layer of democratic legitimacy, as to be political assumes it is done with consent.
It is significant that the day before the gruesome video was filmed in that provincial hospital, the President was reported to have thundered and shrilled yet again, saying he’d told officers in a command conference, “Tapusin na natin ito sa panahon ko, while I’m still here ready to assume singly. I will assume full legal responsibility for whatever it is. And they can hang me if they want. No problem.”
The offer he made to the police still doesn’t seem to have many takers among the military. And while the military shows signs of having made its own uneasy alliance with the President—by means of his not just nullifying but reversing his previous policy of collaboration with the communists, and replacing their slots in the administration with retired officers—it apparently continues to balk at being drafted into liquidating neighborhood individuals.
It may simply be a cold calculus of accountability at work here on the part of the military. The President himself has complained that his clear formula for evading legal repercussions from liquidations was flouted by incompetent or corrupt cops, or both; a professional soldier, faced with this (to them) typical Philippine National Police mess, wouldn’t want to be associated with it in any way. On the other hand, the lines of authority, the room for maneuver, the rules of engagement, for liquidating the New People’s Army or those suspected of enabling them—here, the Armed Forces of the Philippines can say it knows its business.