Column: Why we must criticize Duterte

Published on December 27, 2016.

Today marks President Duterte’s 180th day in office; by one measure, his famous campaign pledge to crack down hard on crime and illegal drugs in six months has reached its deadline. Of the 6,000-plus Filipinos who have been killed in the President’s war on drugs, however, many have been clearly innocent: children caught in the crossfire, victims mistaken for other people. Tomorrow, the Catholic Church remembers the Holy Innocents—the first-born children massacred on Herod’s orders in the jealous king’s attempt to kill Jesus. It should also be an occasion for Christians throughout the country to reflect on the true costs of Mr. Duterte’s war, and to harden our opposition to it.

I have argued before that because “Christianity believes in the possibility of redemption,” any initiative which does not respect this belief, such as the President’s all-out offensive, mocks the Christian faith. “I realize that …. it is certainly the duty of the policeman to protect the community from criminals, even to the point of shooting them. But the police killings in the war on drugs share a common characteristic: Except for the odd case, all of the suspects were shot in the head or in the back. There was no attempt to disarm or to maim, if the suspects were in fact fighting back.” (We should note that this is exactly how ex-president Fidel Ramos criticizes Mr. Duterte’s war, as an abandonment of long-standard rules of engagement.) The way the war on drugs is conducted, however, “does not only run counter to the best practices of effective antidrugs campaigns in the world, or to the constitutional guarantees of due process and the protection of human rights, but it is also, strictly speaking, unchristian.”

This is one urgent reason why, contrary to the President’s loyalists, we must continue to criticize Mr. Duterte: His war does not distinguish between the guilty-as-charged and the innocent; his war’s first casualty may be the very notion, the value, of innocence.

The President’s fixation on the illegal drugs problem is reflected in his constant use of fabricated statistics: From 3 million during the campaign, to 3.7 million in the first few months of his presidency (based on the absurd arithmetic of adding the 700,000 or so who had “surrendered” to the police to the spurious base of 3 million), and now to 4 million, another number plucked out of the opioid air. But none of these estimates is backed by official government monitoring. The latest official estimate is 1.6 million.

Mr. Duterte’s creative use of statistics extends to his assertion that two policemen are killed every day in the war on drugs. If that were true, we would be mourning the loss of 360 men and women in uniform. But the statistics as of Dec. 22, when I joined the night shift to look into the aftermath of the killings, showed that 21 policemen were listed as killed in police operations. That is still 21 too many, but several lies away from “two killed per day.” Here is another urgent reason, then, why we must continue to criticize the President: He is making up justifications for the war on drugs, and these numbers have literal life-or-death consequences. Truth may, yet again, be another of war’s first casualties.

Exactly three weeks after forswearing the use of the commander in chief’s martial law powers, the President startled the nation with an argument for revising the Constitution to remove the checks on precisely those powers. Speaking mainly in Filipino, he complained that, under the post-Marcos Constitution, he would need to go to both Congress and the Court to justify a declaration of martial law. “Well, what happens if the Supreme Court says one thing and Congress says another … Where will you place me? That’s why I really need to change that [provision].”

The President speaks as though the lack of convenience is a defect, rather than a painfully learned lesson from the past. Another urgent reason, then, for us to continue criticizing the President: He wants too much power. Otherwise, democracy will be his war’s ultimate casualty.

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