On law, or how we view it

I’ve been reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bonesa nonfiction work that’s part-memoir, part-journalism, part-travel writing about Hessler’s years in China. One of the more intriguing sections I’ve recently finished dealt with the government’s crackdown on Falun Gong, a health system-cum-religion that gained millions of believers in the 1990s.

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Many of these adherents had a penchant for staging peaceful protests whenever the system received negative publicity, and their protests — highly organized, and highly effective — eventually grew to a point that the Chinese national government found alarming. Officials banned Falun Gong, rounding up leaders and arresting practitioners who mounted demonstrations in protest. These arrests quickly turned violent, and soon news of abuses and even deaths started spreading.

I mention this here because a couple of passage struck me as relevant — or at least relateable — considering the current political climate in the Philippines.

On one of Hessler’s friends, a journalist who investigated the crackdown (emphasis mine):

[…] Ian followed up by researching the Falun Gong structure, as well as the nature of the police response. He discovered that it was another instance of top-down commands: local police units were being fined for every believer who slipped through their clutches and made it to Beijing to protest. What started at the top as an idea — ban Falun Gong — materialized at the lowest levels as sheer brutality, for the stupidest, most pragmatic reason of all: money.

It’s not a point-by-point correspondence by any means, but the parallels are there. I have no idea what methods of incentive/reward the present administration is using to spur on law enforcement, but I do feel like the ruthlessness of our current drug war is animated partly by a drive to “meet quota,” as it were. Certainly there’s pressure there to report concrete results, and that coupled with top leadership’s support for so-called “necessary violence” has given us our own daily feed of “sheer brutality” at the lowest levels. What started in Malacañang as an edict — solve the drug problem — has materialized as a bloodbath.

And with that bloodbath comes a confounding apathy, which I’m afraid will only grow worse as our government sets aside (or at least talks about setting aside, loudly and vehemently) due process and the rule of law with growing frequency. Another passage from Hessler, I think, comes close to articulating why. Again, all emphasis mine:

Regardless of what kind of problem an individual had, it was his problem, and only he could do something about it. Without the sense of a rational system, people rarely felt connected to the troubles of others. The crackdown on Falun Gong should have been disturbing to most Chinese — the group had done nothing worse than make a series of minor political miscalculations that had added up. But few average people expressed sympathy for the believers, because they couldn’t imagine how that issue could be connected to their own relationship with the law. In part, this was cultural–the Chinese had never stressed strong community bonds; the family and other more immediate groups were the ones that mattered most. But the lack of a rational legal climate also encouraged people to focus strictly on their own problems.

The opposite seems to be true for most of the Philippines right now: a common response to the killings, for example, is a self-assured, “You have nothing to fear if you’re not doing anything wrong.” But regardless if it’s a lack of trust in the rationality of the system or a somewhat misplaced belief in the same, the end result seems to be a gulf between the manifest effects of law enforcement in society and how individuals imagine it might materialize in their own lives.

I’ll veer off course a bit here to point out how a lot of the support for these killings is confusing (at least to me), even contradictory. Those same assurances of safety for law-abiding citizens, for example, often come from people who support drug-related killings precisely because they’ve lost faith in the law and its apparatuses of enforcement. Better writers than me have already sketched out these strange but potent twists of reasoning; from a recent New York Times article, for example:

When people begin to see the justice system as thoroughly corrupt and broken, they feel unprotected from crime. That sense of threat makes them willing to support vigilante violence, which feels like the best option for restoring order and protecting their personal safety.

[…] “When you have a system that doesn’t deliver, you are creating, over a period of time, a certain culture of punishment,” she [Gema Santamaria, a professor from the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology] said. “Regardless of what the police are going to do, you want justice, and it will be rough justice.”

To me that sounds like supporting crime to stamp out crime, but that’s not how a lot of my countrymen see it. Again, from that same article:

Surprisingly, that includes increased support for the use of harsh extralegal tactics by the police themselves. “This seems counterintuitive,” Ms. Santamaria said. “If you don’t trust the police to prosecute criminals, why would you trust them with bending the law?”

But to people desperate for security, she said, the unmediated punishment of police violence seems far more effective than waiting for a corrupt system to take action.

And so, over time, frustration with state institutions, coupled with fear of crime and insecurity, leads to demand for authoritarian violence — even if that means empowering the same corrupt, flawed institutions that failed to provide security in the first place.

And this brings me back to that last excerpt from Hessler, because I think it’s also much easier to subscribe to this kind of thinking when one has the sense, however seemingly unfounded, that any authoritarian violence will pass one by. Or to put it in Hessler’s terms: that your problems are not connected to anyone else’s, and conversely, that the problems of suspects who are getting gunned down are not connected to yours. It’s not the only factor, clearly, but it helps: when you believe that others will be the ones doing the dying, that you (and your family — I can’t say much about Chinese culture, but placing a premium on family and more immediate social ties is spot-on for Filipinos, too) have no reason to fear, then why oppose violent measures that mean to cleanse the country?

I think the use of terms like “cleanse,” as if criminals had transformed irrevocably from persons to unsightly grease spots that need to be — literally — wiped out, deserves a red flag here. It’s the kind of absolutely dehumanizing perspective that makes the ideas articulated in that last Hessler excerpt all the more troubling.

Why? As we resort more and more to vigilantism and authoritarian violence, the rule of law continues to crumble — and so does any reliability or rationality in how we resolve questions of legality, of guilt, and maybe even of the right to live. And as Hessler’s observations warn us, those conditions breed apathy — or, in our case, are likely to feed the apathy that already grips many Filipinos. Who’s going to bother to push back against the widespread shift to “rough justice” and more vicious politics then? It looks as though the growth of desperate support for vigilantism and authoritarian violence also reduces the possibility of cultivating the same much-desired societies where such drastic measures would be unnecessary.

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