Published on September 6, 2016.
IT PAINS me to write this response to a series of provocative tweets from Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ—because he is a beloved and instrumental mentor to me, and because he has been right, over the years, on issues large and small. But on Aug. 28, the president of Ateneo de Davao University staked out a position regarding President Duterte’s justification of the war on drugs that I cannot agree with and which in fact I find downright dangerous.
I am late to the issue, because while I happened to be in Davao City when he posted those tweets, I had not yet fully recovered from a bout with a particularly nasty strain of the flu. But I did read the tweets in real time. They were posted in reference to a series of statements the President made the previous Friday, Aug. 26.
In the middle of a critique of human rights advocates, the President had stopped and then said:
This quote became the subject of a news report, filed from Davao City by Inquirer reporter Marlon Ramos, and published as the main story on the newspaper’s front page on Sunday, Aug. 28; under the editor-provided headline “Junkies are not humans,” the report treated the President’s astonishing query for the rhetorical question that it was. It began this way:
“Junkies are not humans.”
“That is how President Rodrigo Duterte sees drug users whose bodies are piling up as he presses his brutal war on drugs.”
Father Tabora, who was president of Ateneo de Naga before his assignment to Davao, spent a busy day on Twitter that Sunday. His first tweet was a quotation from Saint Augustine, indeed the most famous of the many quotations attributed to the great saint, whose feast day it was. It was only later in the day that he launched into a series of tweets taking issue with the Inquirer story.
Seven, in particular, drew my attention. Here they are, in order (but without the hashtags and links):
“Du30 didn’t say, ‘Junkies are not humans.’ He asked, ‘Are drug users human?’ to provoke thought.”
“Du30 was pointing out one-sidedness of human rights critique on war on drugs.”
“Du30’s war on drugs based on an ultimate respect for the human dignity of all Filipinos.”
“The cost of today’s war on drugs is the price of our past collective neglect.”
“Based on human dignity, Du30’s anger against illegal drug use is a virtue. Not caring is the vice.”
“Du30’s respect 4 human life underpins his stand vs. corruption, environmental destruction, poverty.”
“PDI’s sensationalism based on its own inaccurate reporting a disservice to society.”
He had me, stumped, at “provoke thought.” Yes, President Duterte used the interrogative form. But was the President’s purpose to stimulate discussion about what it means to be a human being?
The entire passage begins with the President asking why the deaths of the drug pushers and drug users could be viewed by human rights advocates as a crime against humanity.
“That’s why I said, ‘[W]hat crime against humanity?’ In the first place, I’d like to be frank with you. Are they humans? What is your definition of a human being? Tell me.”
His point was that drug use (never mind peddling illegal drugs; his focus that Friday night was on drug users) dehumanizes the user. The user becomes less human. The context is clear: The war on drugs, which has claimed some 2,000 lives, is a just war, because drug users are less than human anyway.
This reality is disturbing in itself; the President is arguing that one cannot be accused of committing a crime against humanity if the status of the killed is in question. “Are they humans?” For good measure, he also characterizes human rights advocates he doesn’t approve of as having “grey matter between the ears” that’s “melting”—part, I suppose, of an entire zombie apocalypse.
But what concerns me even more is the notion that the President was conducting a scholarly inquiry, a symposium, to “provoke thought” about what it means to be human. If that were true, then the reality is even more forbidding. Tell me: In what context is it ever advisable for a class of persons to be considered, even for academic discussion, as less than human?
If President Duterte or Father Tabora ever ventured a similar thought about, say, the rebel stragglers who continue to rally behind Nur Misuari, or the communist insurgents who look askance at the ongoing peace talks, and called them less than human, imagine the outcry! Will Father Tabora, a staunch environmentalist and antimining advocate, ever find it advisable to ask: “Are pro-mining people even human?” Will the President, perhaps to confound Beijing, ever ask: “Are the Chinese truly human?”
The question is absurd on its face, and an invitation to violence. It is therefore eminently the province of a university to call out the President on this provocation, not to defend it as an exercise in provoking thought. The real-world consequences of asking the question “Are they humans?” are measured in lives and opportunities lost.
My dear Father Tabora’s language about virtue and vice is similarly problematic. “Du30’s anger against illegal drug use is a virtue. Not caring is the vice.” This is a false choice, which academics should be the first to criticize. Not aligning with Mr. Duterte’s self-righteous war does not mean not caring; pointing out that the kill-the-users approach did not work in many other countries does not mean not caring; looking out for the human rights of drug users (we are not talking even of drug pushers or drug lords here, but mere users) does not mean not caring.