Back to Forum

Complicity in the Summary Executions in Duterte’s Drug War

Since President Duterte assumed office in 2016, there has been a spike in the number of drug-related killings. While the Philippine National Police has reported 6,225 killings of drug suspects in legitimate operations since July 2016, the Commission on Human Rights and other human rights groups in the country claim the number is much higher, estimated at around 14,000 as of October 2017. The latter figure includes those who died in police operations and in vigilante-style killings that the investigation of Amnesty International had further established as linked with law enforcers.

In the latest nationwide survey of Pulse Asia conducted in September 2017, 73% believe that extrajudicial killings (EJK) are indeed occurring in the drug war. The survey defines EJK as killings perpetrated by state authorities (e.g. police or soldiers), that are not in accordance with the law. The drug war and the President who once likened himself to Hitler in his plan to kill millions of drug addicts and peddlers, nevertheless, continue to enjoy the support of the majority of Filipinos who are predominantly Christian.

This essay explores the various reasons for the explicit support or silence of Filipinos in the face of the summary executions related to the anti-drug campaign. It will employ as framework the paradigms of evil developed by the theologian Didier Pollefeyt in  his reflections on people’s complicity in the Holocaust, this time applying it to the Philippine context.   

The 1st paradigm diabolicizes the evildoer as a satanic figure or as non-human rendering it impossible to look at the person from a different perspective other than in the light of the evil he has committed (George Steiner). Near the body of 21 yr old Jerico Camitan who was executed together with 17 yr old Erica Fernandez by gunmen in a motorcycle last October 2016, was a cardboard that states: “Tulak ka, hayop ka  “You’re a pusher, you are an animal.” Duterte himself referred to drug addicts as non-human:   ”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?” As totally evil, the drug addict/pusher does not deserve a second chance to be healed or rehabilitated in the perspective of this paradigm.

While the 1st paradigm focuses on the free choice of the person to engage in evil, the 2nd paradigm highlights the banalization of the evildoer who has been reduced to a “thoughtless robot” or “victim” that has lost his/her autonomy within the system (Hannah Arendt).  A police interviewed by Amnesty International reveals that law enforcers – who normally receive a measly salary – are “secretly” paid 8,000 to 15,000 pesos “per head” by the “headquarters.” In contrast, they get no incentive for simply arresting the suspect.

Some church leaders admitted that they are afraid to speak because of Duterte’s popular support, and lest they themselves become targets of this vigilante-style killing. Others fear that Duterte who is not scared to offend the Church would expose their dirty linens in public.

Village (Barangay) leaders are likewise afraid to share CCTV footages of killings. Witnesses of victims who were shot even if they already surrendered are scared to testify, for fear of retaliation on the part of law enforcers.

The 2nd paradigm considers psycho-sociological factors that breed evil which thus lead to deculpabilisation or excusing the evildoer. But it does not account for how people can be creative in their complicity with evil. The 3rd paradigm explains this by ethicizing the evildoer; the malefactor is motivated by good intentions and is acting in accordance with the ruling “ethics” (Peter Haas). He or she is not just a victim of the system but creative in his/her participation since this allegedly contributes to the perceived greater good. Encouraged by Duterte himself who gave rewards for killing top drug lords, some local chief executives give a bounty reward for police and even citizens for killing suspects and/or criminals.

The EJKs are seen as acceptable, a necessary evil, in the light of the campaign against illegal drugs to promote public safety. Its toleration is an ethical conclusion brought about by a number of factors such as the costliness and slowness of justice in the Philippines, including for victims of drug-related crimes. It may be linked to the view that death penalty (whose implementation in the country has been on moratorium) is a deterrent for heinous crimes that are believed to be committed by people under the influence of drugs. This is also supported by the notion that Asians need a strongman, an iron hand, to bring about peace. Together with the conflicting statistics about the real score of the drug problem in the country, the people may misjudge EJK as “ethically” tolerable. Some who campaigned for Duterte assure others that, as in Davao where the President served as Mayor, if one is not engaged in any wrongdoing, then there is nothing to fear.

A 4th paradigm developed by Pollefeyt himself sees the evildoer as self-deceiver who is aware of the evil that is happening at the same time evades it through various ways to shield the self from getting tainted with the knowledge of one’s complicity with evil. He critiques the 3rd paradigm in the Nazi context, as a form of self-justification and self-deception. Pollefeyt elaborates on the role of fragmentation that creates compartmentalization in the self and facilitates self-deception: an example is a murderous police officer to poor drug addicts when on the job, and a loving husband and father to his wife and children when at home, keeping the ethics of labor and of family separate. There are as well, as Reuters reported, emergency room doctors who “aren’t asking any questions” regarding patients who arrive in the hospitals dead on arrival. “They only record it: DOA.” For as international and local condemnation of the drug war increased, law enforcers started dumping EJK corpses to hospitals to prevent crime scene investigations and the attention of the media, thereby resulting in an increase of dead on arrival patients from 1% in July 2016 to 85% in January 2017.

Within a totalitarian ethic, the emphasis is indeed on sameness, and everyone who opposes is eliminated. In contrast, the biblical ethic challenges us to respond to the vulnerable face of the other. Jesus’ inclusive praxis that invites to his table fellowship the last, the least, the lost, of 1st century Palestine is a counter-narrative that can and should wake up conscientious Christians from complicity to resistance.