Column: Bloodlust

A difficult piece to write, for obvious reasons. Published on March 22, 2011.

IT PAINS me to disagree with the dean of Filipino journalists, at whose last book launch, in October 2008, I had the happy privilege of serving as grateful emcee. But on the issue of the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, I think the eminent Amando Doronila is fundamentally mistaken.

In two columns last week, the man we all call “Doro” painted a portrait of Gutierrez as victim of a vengeful Aquino coalition, and criticized the Aquino administration and its majority in Congress for playing what he called a “game of lynchmanship.” In his front-page analysis of March 14, Doro accused the administration of “fueling a lynch-mob atmosphere over the effort to impeach Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez at all costs.” This effort, he warned, “could damage a constitutional system based on the rule of law and not on the ‘rule of men’—no matter how well-intentioned is the administration to clean up corruption in government.”

In his March 16 column, Doro sustained the metaphor of the lynch mob, drawing on the emotive power of the language of bloodlust to raise another warning about a damaged constitutional system. “Before Congress rushes Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez to the impeachment gallows, amid the Aquino administration’s intensified call lusting for her head, it is important to pause and consider that impeachment stretches the capacity of the constitutional system to conduct a trial consistent with the rule of law and due process.”

There is no question that when the political system is under stress, it is “important to pause.” But it is even more important to recognize when a capacity-stretching exercise like an impeachment is actually called for. Surely Doro is not suggesting that an impeachment is out of bounds, simply because it places extraordinary pressure on the country’s political system. His twin analyses (I limit myself to them; Doro has written other columns criticizing Gutierrez) reach their conclusion without considering the ombudsman’s own track record: the pressure, to give only one instance, from both the Senate blue ribbon committee and the Supreme Court to deal forthrightly with the Mega Pacific anomaly, followed by Gutierrez’s inexplicable finding of a crime without criminals. Absent the context of these cases, all of them a matter of record, then of course the impeachment process begins to look like railroaded justice.

I find three of Doro’s arguments deeply problematic.

The argument from acquittal. Part of Doro’s criticism is based, impliedly, on what he calls the President’s “fragile hold” on the upper chamber. On March 14, he wrote: “The President’s Liberal Party holds only four seats in the Senate, far below the 16 votes needed to convict an impeached official, in this case Gutierrez. She needs only seven senators to vote against conviction.” Any other observer of Senate politics would offer a different estimate. My own view is that the final vote may actually be much closer than mere party affiliations would suggest. But that is not the point.

The point is, Doro had called previously on President Aquino to spend his immense political capital. Other columnists and political commentators have done so too, in various instances, to varied effect. Well, with the impeachment of Gutierrez, President Aquino has obliged us. The notion that the President should have waited until he was certain of conviction in the Senate is counter-productive at best, cynical at worst. The administration, elected to office on the strength of its anti-corruption campaign, finds all anti-corruption initiatives blocked by Gutierrez. To keep true to its campaign promise, it must do all it can to remove the obstacle of a do-nothing ombudsman. If this is not worth spending one’s political capital on, what is?

The argument from bias. Another factor in Doro’s reasoning involves the question of pending graft cases against congressmen who may vote to impeach Gutierrez, beginning with the chairman of the justice committee of the House of Representatives. “The fact that 117 congressmen have pending cases with the Ombudsman has allowed Gutierrez the issue of conflict of interest and to cast doubt on the credibility of congressmen to impeach on the basis of evidence and conduct a fair trial.”

Actually, no. Only those who are Gutierrez’s political allies think that the argument from bias holds any water. The reason is simple enough, and self-evident to anyone who has followed the impeachment process closely—not merely through news stories, but by following the hearings aired live on TV and radio, and online. The justice committee has actually acquitted itself honorably in the discharge of its politically freighted functions; it did not rush into the impeachment process with the filing of the first complaint last July; it did not seek to violate the Court’s status quo ante order which was in effect for five months; it did not—unlike the Arroyo majority in 2005, 2006 and 2007, when legal maneuvers like Rep. Edcel Lagman’s “prejudicial questions” prevented the minority from presenting its case against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—kick the new minority out of the decision-making loop. On the credibility of Congress, in the matter of the Gutierrez impeachment, I think the advantage clearly lies with the majority.

The argument from language. The power of Doro’s twin analyses rests mainly on their use of emotive language: lynch mob (therefore irrational), lusting for blood (therefore violent), game of lynchmanship (unserious, and therefore merely political). I cannot find the evidence to back these claims in the rest of the columns. They seem to me to be mere assertion—and for that reason risky wordplay.

 

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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