Desensitization

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ONE WORD I learned during martial law was “desensitization.”

It explained the people’s apparent indifference to the piles of uncollected garbage in the streets; to the masses of underclad, undernourished children in the slums; to the very slums themselves, which were conveniently wrapped in brightly painted walls whenever a foreign dignitary was in town. It helped me understand why, despite the spate of desaparecidos and detained and salvaged, most folks barely flinched and pragmatically carried on. Because we were desensitized to the lies fed us by the controlled media, we read the papers and watched the news anyway, though we somehow sympathized with the networks forced to deceive us.

Because we could do very little about anything, we defaulted into numbness and satisfied ourselves with innocuously cursing the Marcoses and their cronies in private, thinking afterwards that we had fought back, even a little. It was rather like ordering a diet soda with a huge pasta meal; it made us feel like we were taking a stand. Having done that, we could go back to minding our business in manageable numbness. Desensitization allowed us to slog on forward, in one way or another.

The reason why Ninoy Aquino is a hero – to me, at least – is that by dying, he roused us from slumber. Like mariners rescued from the lotus eaters, we regained awareness and submitted to the pain we could no longer deny. It hurt so much that we sprang into action. We gathered strength and cursed Marcos publicly, calling him and his minions to account for their many crimes against our humanity. It took us three years, but we ousted that dictator, feeling every bit of the agony he inflicted upon us. We remembered our stupor and recalled their iniquity and to this day, we say to both, “never again!”

This is why I am worried about a developing trend nationwide. It is the tendency to say that the killings happening around us now are all right. Supposedly, it is because they involve drug personalities; but I suspect that it is really because the dead are conveniently anonymous and so easy to vilify. “They” (the drug lords/pushers/users) deserve it; “we” are being saved from their abominable presence. So it’s fine.

Every day we hear reports of multiple drug-related killings. There have been so many that the Inquirer has undertaken to keep a running tally of them:

PDI_Kill_List

The Inquirer Kill List as of noon, July 7. Access the list here.  (Screengrab from inquirer.net)

Google “drug related killings Philippines” and you will find reports by Reuters, the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, CNN, The Daily Mail, NBC, inter alia. The world has taken notice and is appalled. Yet locally, there has been widespread approval and even commendation of these extrajudicial killings – and sadly, condemnation of the voices raised against them. “Human rights” now joins “decent” as a pejorative term in the new glossary of “change.”

It has come to the point where the scenes of bloody and outraged corpses, hogtied, blinded, tortured, bullet-ridden, asphyxiated, drowned, slashed, mutilated, humiliated with signs (“Pusher ako. ‘Wag tularan.”),  no longer shock. People watch this on the news/see it in print/view it online, shrug and change the channel/turn the page/navigate away. “Just another SOB who asked for it; serves him right. And here come the bleeding hearts crying ‘human rights!’ They care more about the criminals than the children they would have killed…” So the argument goes, and there is a wide consensus to it.

Yes, drug dealing is a crime, and yes, drug addiction is a horrific national problem; but so is killing and so is mass murder. What is to stop the families of those killed from later waging violent vendettas and posting placards on their victims: “Mamamatay-tao ako. ‘Wag tularan.” After all, crime is crime and there’s a war against it; sign up, suit up, and choose your target.

We cannot desensitize ourselves to these summary executions and to the pain of the bereaved, just because we think the dead deserved to die. That is not for us to decide; that is why we have laws; that is why we have a legal system. We cannot arbitrarily choose to observe some of its rules and not others.

No matter how frustrated we are with the system, it remains in place. It needs reform, I agree; but it cannot be disregarded because the whole structure of our republic – this government of laws – will crumble. Yes, even the presidency. The president himself, though immune from suit while in office, remains subject to the laws of the land. He, above all, must model respect for the law because he serves as its prime enforcer as chief executive.

The bloody scenes have to matter. The keening of widows and orphans has to sting. I will not weep for the guilty, but who can guaranty that there are no innocents among the recent dead? No one. There was no chance to find out.

We cannot desensitize ourselves to these killings, because if we do, one day the wild arm of the executioner may swing unpredictably close to home, and wrong or right, someone you know, perhaps love, may die. Then it will be too late to complain. Then, I assure you, it will hurt, and you will want someone to feel your pain.

As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live.

Ezekiel 33:11

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