To vanquish a hydra

On December 1, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo formalized her 2010 bid to represent the second district of Pampanga in the Lower House, Fr. Roland Moraleja, who delivered the homily at a special concelebrated mass, made the now-(in)famous comment likening Macapagal-Arroyo to Jesus. Although Pampanga Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David called the comparison blasphemous, it was again invoked, albeit in a more subdued fashion, by Press Secretary Cerge Remonde in a Malacañang press conference last Sunday, nearly two days after the hardworking and prayerful President issued Proclamation No. 1959, which declared a state of martial law and suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in most of Maguindanao.

Asked for a reaction regarding the outcry against the proclamation, Remonde said that Macapagal-Arroyo was “ready to be crucified” by public opinion on the matter, and would let nothing stop her from doing what she needs to do, as she has the best interests of Maguindanao at heart. (Due to a clerical error that Raissa Robles has already discussed, it seemed for a while that the best interests of Maguindanao were mysteriously linked to the establishment of a village school in Zamboanga del Sur.)

The vacuity and spuriousness of the comparison of the President to Christ notwithstanding, I am willing to concede that it can be upheld on one point. Consider this excerpt from the speech she delivered on December 30, 2002, the 106th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jose Rizal:

However, we also know that we will soon enter the political period leading up to the elections in 2004. My reading on the political winds tells me that the 2004 election may well go down in history as among our most bitterly contested elections ever. This is because of the deep social and political division that we now have.

If this is true, then sincere efforts to launch programs will run the risk of being derailed by political fighting leading up to the elections.

The government in place after 2004 may merely end up inheriting a country as deeply divided as ever. Consequently, we may end up stalling national growth for a few years more as a result of lost momentum.

In view of all these factors, I have decided not to run for President during the election of 2004.

When she reneged on this last statement by entering the race, and emerged victorious, she reinforced, even exacerbated, the very divisions that she had initially claimed to be wary of, especially after she was beset by allegations of having cheated her way into power, sparking a controversy that still smolders, unresolved. This brings to mind what Jesus said in Luke 12:51-53:

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

As a holiday bonus to Macapagal-Arroyo, I am further willing to concede that, just like Christ in his time, she is widely distrusted, if not downright reviled.

Where the analogy ultimately fails is the idea of resurrection. Macapagal-Arroyo, despite being the “luckiest bitch around“, despite the performance of self-serving “miracles”, has yet to prove that she is capable of rising from the dead, although her ability to avoid (political) death is certainly nothing to scoff at. Anyway, in the name of authenticity, she would first have to be willing to be whipped, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, force-fed vinegar, jabbed with spears, and generally jeered at until she expires.

What I find to be the most useful image with which to make sense of the present dispensation comes out of Greek mythology: the Lernaean Hydra. A fearsome, serpent-like beast that dwelt in the swamp of Lerna, the hydra was known for preying upon cattle and terrorizing nearby villages, and was extremely difficult to kill. It possessed nine heads, eight mortal and one immortal, and once a mortal head was cut off, two more would grow in its place.

Apollodorus tells us that Herakles himself, though blessed with superhuman strength, would not have been able to slay the hydra without assistance from his young nephew: “…[Herakles] called for help on Iolaus who, by setting fire to a piece of the neighboring wood and burning the roots of the heads with the brands, prevented them from sprouting. Having thus got the better of the sprouting heads, he chopped off the immortal head, and buried it, and put a heavy rock on it, beside the road that leads through Lerna to Elaeus.”

My point here is that the administration of Macapagal-Arroyo has displayed a talent—if talent it can indeed be called—not for solving problems but for multiplying them. By consistently framing national affairs in the language of war, by cultivating an environment of apparently ceaseless chaos, the regime renders the formation of a broad, durable opposition almost impossible—worse, it induces in the majority a sense of utter helplessness, which lends itself so easily, as seen in the wake of the Hello Garci scandal, to willful myopia, to cynicism, to the belief that it is more enlightened to forgive and forget. Never mind that all moral responsibility is relinquished, that the grievous wounds to the body politic continue to fester and putrefy beneath the Band-Aid of “moving on”, that the hydra is allowed to grow in strength and impunity.

With Proclamation No. 1959, the ridiculous, error-riddled report that purports to justify it, and the pathetic performance of Macapagal-Arroyo’s cabinet officials at the joint session of Congress, the price of moving on should be crystal-clear: moving on allows evil to become ordinary. Every time the public fails to muster the strength to be outraged, it becomes complicit in the commission of ever more outrageous deeds. Every time the public agrees with the Palace mouthpieces—experts at victimage and little else—that the President is attacked no matter what she does, it gives her license to do whatever she wants—and this is a President who seems determined to try everything, including the creation of the very same monster that she now claims to want to destroy: her erstwhile allies and still-good friends, the mass-murdering members of the Ampatuan clan.

Last July, in her State of the Nation Address, Macapagal-Arroyo challenged her detractors, saying, “Do not tell us what we all know, that democracy can be threatened. Tell us what you will do when it is attacked.” In the face of this state-sponsored attack on democracy, how shall we, the people, act?

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‘A mere aberration’

PGMA at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo delivers a speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast on November 26, 2009.

Based on several news reports, the death toll for the Ampatuan Massacre (also referred to as the “Maguinanao Massacre”) has risen from 57 to 64, though authorities have dismissed the new figure, saying that they had stopped the excavations yesterday.

It is unknown when the additional bodies were uncovered—or, as has been remarked, if these are in fact part of the current crime being investigated, considering that Mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., the alleged mastermind, is known to be a “hatchet man” (“chainsaw man” would not be inappropriate)—but the gruesome details remain the same: a group consisting of several women, among them lawyers and at least 30 media workers, set off in a convoy of six vehicles from Buluan on the morning of November 23, Monday, to witness the proxy filing of the certificate of candidacy of gubernatorial hopeful Ishmael Mangudadatu at the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) office in Shariff Aguak. The group had previously made separate requests to the army and to the police for a security escort, but had been turned down. The convoy, along with a carful of innocent motorists, was stopped by armed men, who, led by Mayor Ampatuan, Jr., abducted, tortured, and killed most of the members of the group, in one stroke shattering the traditional shields of the powerless.

No cases of beheading or rape, which were earlier alleged, have been mentioned by investigators yet, though practically all the women were sexually mutilated. A backhoe emblazoned with the legend, “Property of the province of Maguindanao – Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr.”, which had been dispatched on a project some weeks before, was used to crush the vehicles and dig mass graves for the victims, some of whom were buried alive. (The operator of the machine is the subject of a manhunt.) Upon hearing that the military was approaching, the militiamen immediately fled, leaving the cover-up work undone, but the entire atrocity reportedly took little more than an hour to carry out.

Local and international organizations, as well as governments around the world, have condemned the massacre—a barbarity that could very well be, and hopefully is, the nadir of a political culture predicated on guns, goons, and gold—as a crime against humanity, and demanded the swift dispensation of justice. Public anger and despair at the murders continue to intensify, with various sectors holding vigils or rallies.

In view of the universal outrage at the carnage, it is inexplicable, unacceptable, and unconscionable that the government has been unwilling or unable to move quickly and decisively against the perpetrators, instead resorting to dissemblance, diminishment, and delay, perhaps out of the belief that people will fall victim to amnesia after having vented their spleens, as they have in the wake of other tragedies, or in the morbid expectation that an exponentially more horrific, and hence potentially more mediagenic, catastrophe will take place.

In dealing with the Ampatuan clan, which has enjoyed a close relationship with the current administration, the government has had its kid gloves firmly on from day one, resulting in strange contortions of rhetoric and action that would be funny under other circumstances. Malacañang conspicuously understated the massacre as “an incident between two families in Mindanao” with which it had nothing to do. Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Ronaldo Puno downplayed the expulsion of the Ampatuans from the ruling party by chairman Gilbert Teodoro as an expression of justified, but ultimately personal, outrage. For his part, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita could only muster an oblique plea, saying, “It definitely would help if, those who feel that they are already being considered as suspects, for them to turn themselves in and cooperate with the law enforcement agencies.”

The police have also said that the backhoe and witness accounts are insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, the bodies are fast deteriorating, as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has not even used lime to preserve them.

Although Ampatuan, Jr. has been charged and is now in custody, Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina was recorded as having backtracked from using the term “suspect”, and officials actually waited for the mayor to surrender last November 26, Thursday, instead of taking the initiative and hauling him in for questioning. (Department of Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera stressed that he was arrested.) And despite finally being tagged as the primary suspect, Ampatuan, Jr. was not handcuffed as he was brought to General Santos for an inquest, and then to Manila for detention.

Notwithstanding the self-professed exultance of the Palace at the news that the mayor was in custody, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo made a point of asserting that the order to nab Ampatuan, Jr. was not issued by the President, who will remain friends with the Ampatuans.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself did not even make a statement until two days after the crime, on November 25, Wednesday—and a most perfunctory statement at that:

Her speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast the following day, which she had designated as a National Day of Prayer and Mourning for the victims, was not a significant improvement, crammed as it was with vague and passive gestures toward God and justice.

It was perhaps the voluble—not to mention reliably inane—Press Secretary Cerge Remonde who, inadvertently or otherwise, best summed up the attitude of the present dispensation toward the Ampatuan massacre. On November 27, Remonde declared that, “It is said that the incident has few [precedents] in brutality, and for this we are condemned by the whole world. But let me assure the nation and the rest of the world that the killing of at least 57 people, including lawyers and media men, is a mere aberration” (emphasis added).

This is a poisonous suggestion that must be denounced in the strongest possible terms. By inserting the slaughter of 64 people into a space of “mere aberrations”, Remonde is attempting to disengage the government from its responsibilities, and worse, to accelerate the process of forgetting, thus displaying a species of impunity no less dangerous than that of the Ampatuans. As tantalizing as it is to believe that the Ampatuan massacre is an event so terrible that it could not have been prevented, and, anyway, will never happen again—who would not want to believe this, after all?—the fundamental impulse behind it, as a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial points out, should be shocking precisely because it is hardly aberrant:

When unmarked, black-tinted SUVs wang-wang their insolent way through a city’s roads, when government officials who have no other source of income except access to public funds ostentatiously purchase the most expensive luxury items, when public servants swagger into a room with dozens of bodyguards, we recognize the seeds of future massacres.

“Should be shocking”, that is, unless one is a callous, charter-change monomaniac like Carmen Pedrosa, who readily exonerates the Arroyo regime so as to be able to annex the tragedy for her cause.

Speaking of disturbing familiarity, it is urgently necessary, I think, that a particular aspect of the massacre be examined more closely. It may be that the militiamen who committed the murders were marching to the tune of a warlord who could be described as “psychopathic”, “sadistic”, or “monstrous”, but what are the odds that nearly all of them were psychopathic, sadistic monsters? (Psychopathy, in the clinical, rather than the popular, sense, is estimated to manifest itself in only 1% of the population, though researchers have suggested that psychopaths are overrepresented in occupations such as politics, business, and entertainment.) The bigger picture is more abysmal.

According to “Boy”, the sole gunman on the scene who claimed he could not bring himself to participate in the killing, “Datu Andal himself said […] to us: anyone from the Mangudadatu clan—women or children—should be killed… We [didn’t] ask why, we just followed orders. “How many of us have found ourselves in exactly the same situation—one in which we, in spite of our moral convictions, failed to question authority and therefore suffered the perils of obedience?

In the early 1960s, perhaps inspired in part by the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann—also the subject of a book by philosopher Hannah Arendt, in which she introduced the concept of the “banality of evil”—Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to test how far people were willing to obey commands from an authority figure. The volunteers, who had been recruited via newspaper ads, were made to play the role of “teacher”, and conducted simple memory exercises that a “learner” would provide answers to. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to administer progressively higher electric shocks to a “learner”, who was strapped to a miniature electric chair. There were 30 shock levels in all, from 15 volts to 450 volts. The electrocution was not real, but the learner, an actor, would express discomfort and pain, even scream, to convince the teacher that actual shocks were being delivered by the machine. Every time the teacher hesitated, the experimenter would prompt the teacher to press the switch.

In a poll that Milgram conducted among psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults, 100% of the respondents predicted that the teachers would defy the experimenter, and that few teachers would go beyond the mild shock levels. The results of Milgram’s first set of experiments proved otherwise: out of 40 teachers, 26 administered the maximum shock of 450 volts. He would go on to conduct 17 other variations on the experiment and compile the results in Obedience to Authority, first published in 1974. Below are selected paragraphs from the opening chapter:

Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. This was seen time and again in our studies and has been observed in several universities where the experiment was repeated. It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky.  […] The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation—a conception of his duties as a subject—and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

The difficult lesson that emerged from Milgram’s experiments is one of the lessons that we need to revisit and keep uppermost in our minds as we struggle to deal with the grisly reality and the grislier implications of the Ampatuan Massacre. Those among us who sow discord and commit acts of unimaginable cruelty may just be doing their jobs. The perpetration of evil need not be, and is in fact far from, a mere aberration.