“They needed no facts, no information: they had a `theory,’ and all the data that did not fit were denied or ignored.” That was Hannah Arendt, the Jewish philosopher that wrote the seminal opus on totalitarianism, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In this and in many of her writings she underscores the value of factual truth which she says is the first to be attacked by would-be dictators and authoritarians through propaganda and lies.
Arendt easily came to mind when I was reading Patricia Evangelista’s international book “Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country.” The great service Evangelista has done to us, like many real journalists, is simply laying out to us the truth about the 6-year nightmare that we all went through with Duterte’s so-called war on drugs. Arendt distinguishes between factual truth which is unassailable and moral or philosophical truth which should be based on factual truth. As a journalist, Evangelista was only concerned with the first one and painstakingly researched on it, at the risk of life and limb, and exquisitely wrote about it (this non-fiction book reads like a John le Carre or a John Grisham novel!). With almost 100 pages of endnotes, she exposes the truth about Duterte’s murderous project and the many facts we missed or ignored along the way.
Briefly, Evangelista starts with the first lie: Davao. We had been told about how successful Dutere was as the perennial Mayor of his city, especially in maintaining the peace and order there and in particular, lowering its crime rate. I remember being in Davao in the 90s and being told precisely how it was safe to roam the streets at night because the criminal elements had already been tamed or eliminated by the Mayor (same slogan used during the war on drugs). That might have been true but it was achieved at the cost of lives and the perversion of the rule of law. And yet, confronted several times with accusations about the hired vigilante groups dubbed the DDS or the Duterte Death Squad, including by the Commission on Human Rights led by Duterte’s nemesis, Senator Leila de Lima, the Mayor denied any direct involvement. The original lie. And most of the country just turned a blind eye on the bloodshed happening there. Because we had a theory or several desperate ones. Might makes right. The end justifies the means! No pain, no gain! Or the favorite meme of dictators according to Arendt: “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.” If only instead we stuck with the prophet Habbakuk: “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by injustice (2:12)!”
But that show of strength and power was enough to catapult the Mayor to the highest office of the land. And from there wage a bloody “war.” As Evangelista writes, however, there were initial challenges to Duterte’s lies. For example, when he cited that there were more than three (3) million drug addicts in the country, the Dangerous Drugs Board contested this with their own estimate at 1.8 million in 2015. The following week, the head of that agency was sacked. Of course, the bigger number suited Duterte’s propaganda that we were nearing the level of narco-states like Colombia. That scenario immediately struck fear among the populace. I remember even highly educated clergy buying into and mouthing Duterte’s fraudulent figures. “If there are 3 million drug addicts, and a drug addict destroys his entire family, and given that, there are, say, 5 members per household, then we are looking at 15 million Filipinos affected by this menace! We need to support this president.” At least the math seemed right.
From spurious statistics, Evangelista also delves on Duterte’s methodology. Yes, as Shakespeare says of Hamlet, there is method in his madness. First, there was the language. Duterte, for example, intentionally did not distinguish among drug users, drug addicts, or drug pushers. They’re all lumped into one: all criminals to be eliminated. (Except of course the drug lords who remained generally untouched.) Early on even the use of the term “war” was deliberate as it appealed to many with whom the word conjured political will, relentless action, and immediate albeit facile solutions. Then there was the weaponization of the law and the officers of the law. As a lawyer, Duterte knew which was murder and which was homicide. He reminded the Philippine National Police to know the difference and that for as long as they were doing the killing in “the line of duty” and the drug addicts fought back or “nanlaban” when these were killed, the police were safe. To this safe end, as Evangelista discovers, evidence was planted, police reports and documents manufactured, and witnesses bribed. But as one Police Director would say, they felt empowered, protected and even loved by no other president. Thirdly, the be all and end all of any dictator, the use of fear. “What I want to do is instill fear!” Duterte’s words quoted by Evangelista on the very first page of the book. It explains the deadly drug list he waves up in his weekly press conferences and its local versions in the barangays. It also underpins why there had to be deaths every day, splashed on national media, even if the PNP would deny being given daily quotas or targets. Not only were they meant to scare the guilty, but everyone else. As Arendt tells us fear leads to terror and total terror to mindless submission.
But there is yet another technique. In a radio interview, I asked Patricia Evangelista why or how a nation of heroes, as she has observed in the book, referring to our brave struggle against Martial Law and our gallant stand at EDSA, ended up embracing another dictator. “We are Duterte,” was a refrain in her book. She said, Duterte told a story –whether it’s his false story that he was born poor and so could identify with the Masa. Or his swashbuckling adventures as Mayor and against criminals and all the other forces of evil that threaten Philippine Society. We bought it. Especially because he told it in the most entertaining way, with all the suspense, the humor, and the fearlessness.
What a story indeed. Bereft of facts. And now here is a fact. 30 thousand are dead from the senseless war on drugs. And using my friend’s math, that would amount to hundred thousand families without a father or a mother. And millions of us traumatized as silent witnesses and perhaps even guilty of complicity precisely because of that silence. But here is another fact. Failing to eradicate the drug menace, the Mayor’s daughter is gung-ho and has turned on another boogeyman—the communists. She has a theory and with this has painted our schools and barangays red, and, of course, profiting off it with so-called intelligence and confidential funds. Now, have we learned our lesson: can we fact-check this please?