Unholy War on Drugs Brings Cardboard Justice to the Philippines

Tracy Llanera Oct 4, 2016

On July 24, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published what has now become the penultimate image of “cardboard justice”, the notorious execution strategy of police and vigilantes rallying behind President Duterte’s war on drugs. The image features Jennilyn Olayres cradling Michael Siaron, her partner and the second victim out of six during the night’s drug shoot. Beside him is a piece of cardboard stating “I’m a drug pusher, don’t follow my example.” Dubbed as La Pieta, the image is now circulating worldwide.With Olayres sprawled like “Mother Mary cradling the dead cadaver of Jesus Christ,” Duterte judges the photo as melodrama: “E 'yan 'yang mga 'yan, magda-dramahan tayo dito" (“These people, we’ll all be doing dramatics here”).
In the Philippines, the land of drugs and grit and crime, there is no room for tears and moral sensationalism. What is needed is decisive and tough action. And the succession of events has been tough to swallow indeed — Siaron is only one out of more than 2,400 killed extrajudicially since Duterte’s presidential win was secured; thousands more are now in jail or have surrendered for fear of meeting the same fate.
The image of Raffy Lerma’s La Pieta causes offense to supporters of Duterte in two ways. First, it hypes up what for them is an otherwise socially justifiable operation in a complex drug war. The common assumption is that drug pushers and addicts are criminals and a menace to society. There is no reason to get emotional over the quick death of the guilty. What is 2,400, after all, compared to nine times more who have been robbed, raped and murdered by these animals? Second, they argue that the photo associates the sacred and the profane scandalously. How dare we portray Mary the Virgin Mother as a wailing, tattooed woman from the slums? How can we render Jesus Christ, the Savior of Man and the Son of God, as a pedicab driver in the morning and a druggie who snorts shabu up his nose at night?
Many have criticized the first justification. Duterte’s drug war has its roots from poverty and social inequality. The issue is not only whether the rights of a drug pusher matter more than the majority’s welfare. Rather, the real war is that life in the Philippines is so unjust, and the state so inept at caring for the vulnerable, that the social situation enables the proliferation of corruption and drug addiction and crime. From this perspective, even poor criminals are victims too, and the bigger culprits are getting away. As Randy David maintains, “Despite the fact that the victims of summary killings have been mostly suspected drug users and pushers from poor communities — precisely the kind of people who do not have the connections and the means to hire good defense lawyers —the fiction is maintained that it is human rights rather than unequal power that has served as a shield to evade responsibility.” In this sense, failing to condemn these killings means being complicit to them.
The second point is trickier. The figures of Mary and Jesus belong to religion, the realm of redemption and the good, while the bodies of Olayres and Siaron represent the bad, their lives hellishly summed up by a “don’t follow” sign. From this perspective, La Pieta is distasteful and indecent. It conflates the holy with the unclean. As Duterte claims, it’s melodrama.
But this bravado is exactly what makes this image so significant. It integrates, intimately and effectively, concepts that otherwise belong to separate sets of references in the Filipino imagination: the religious and the political. The Pietà is familiar to the religious imagination of Catholics who comprise more than 80% of the Filipino population. During Lent, many embark on the Stations of the Cross, a fourteen-step prayer devotion that chronicles the last day of Jesus as a man. The Pietà serves as the thirteenth station. In the Catholic tradition, Jesus’s death is destined by humanity’s need for salvation. His death is also precipitated by the call of an angry mob, inflamed by the possibility of witnessing the “King of the Jews” crucified. In both transcendental and political senses, the people are to blame in this story. Collective guilt serves as a motivation behind reliving Christ’s death, suffering, and resurrection every year. In short, the Semana Santa acts as a public call for reflection and repentance. And if we imagine hard enough, this narrative communicates something important about the social context of the photograph that has immortalized Siaron and Olayres. Their poverty and powerlessness have crucified them to a fate of injustice and limited opportunities, a life in which their fellow Filipinos campaign without shame for their deaths.
The metaphor is easy to see here: both narratives share the notion of condemnation and guilt. It makes sense to expect that the image would evoke deep and righteous public anger. It is an invitation for social action. But where is the large outcry to condemn and stop these murders? Where is the strong evidence of social reflection and possible repentance for our general complicity? Has it even crossed our minds to think of ourselves as guilty?
Or has the Filipino imagination failed in making this association between the religious and the political?
This is a highly conceptual question, but one that has to be posed to make a difference in practice. What is at stake in engaging it is the analysis of social paradoxes that are deeply ingrained in the Filipino psyche. One common paradox is this: how can so many Filipinos valorize religiosity, go to Sunday mass and recite their Thou Shalt Not’s, and at the same time support the death penalty and the murder of alleged criminals without due process? How can their religious and political beliefs accommodate this glaring inconsistency? I suggest that this paradox exposes a weakness in the Filipino imagination: it is ill-equipped to negotiate the contradictions that arise in our religious and political lives. The premise behind this claim is that the imagination houses our creative power to engage many conflicting dimensions of life in a way that aims for integration. The German Romantics, for instance, believed that the imagination is responsible for forming and reconciling social worlds — worlds defined by the spheres of art, politics and religion. The process of negotiating between these spheres would eventually give rise to some sense of a collective identity. Applied to the Philippine context, what and how do Filipinos collectively imagine? Are there hopes and ideals that Filipinos display a strong commitment to — Freedom? Equality? Justice? Compassion? – that their art, politics and religion hold in high regard? Do Filipinos even have a shared vision for the nation?
These are ambitious, difficult questions. But Filipinos missing the La Pieta metaphor is a good start for thinking about why we find it so hard to answer them.
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