On “Citizenfour”

Last Thursday, I filed my last articles of 2016 for both jobs. Buzzer-beaters, to be sure, but I celebrated all the same by putting on a movie. There was nothing remotely festive on my flash drive, it was a bit too late to dig up alternatives, and the US Congress’ Intelligence Committee had just released its findings on Edward Snowden.

And that, friends, is how someone ends up watching Citizenfour for the holidays.


The last documentary in filmmaker Laura Poitras’ trilogy on post-9/11 America, Citizenfour drops you into the riveting, paranoiac story of how the world found out that it was being watched. It’s you in a Hong Kong hotel room, conferring with Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Edward Snowden on the US’ mass surveillance systems. It’s you on the receiving end of encrypted (and cryptic) emails with instructions for downloading classified documents. It’s you in the middle of game-changing revelations about privacy and state power. Or, no, that’s not entirely accurate: it’s Edward Snowden in the center, and for 144 minutes, you are an invested and equally vulnerable insider.

Make no mistake, this is an advocacy film. Citizenfour depicts Snowden as an intelligent and resolute NSA contractor who grew increasingly disillusioned with the agency’s ethically questionable surveillance programs. The leaks, Snowden says, were driven by patriotism and principle. Poitras and Greenwald never question him beyond that, nor does the film look at the fallout of Snowden’s actions. Instead, Poitras drills down on the leaks’ implications: millions of civilians under watch without cause or consent, the deception that sustained that surveillance, the alarming lapses in ethics and judgment that entails.
Together, your insider position and Poitras’ choice of focus transform Citizenfour from simple documentary to real-life cyberpunk thriller.

A lot of questions have been raised about Snowden’s motives and methods, and the recent US Congressional report on his ties with Russian intelligence only muddle the picture further. Faith in Snowden, however, is essential to Citizenfour. It creates clarity. That, in turn, lets the film have its high and immediate stakes: glossing over Snowden’s motives leaves him free to inhabit the role of intrepid cyberpunk protagonist, sending dispatches through the internet ether and living on a ticking clock set by sinister governments with motive and means to hunt him down. This is the chase that Citizenfour drops you into; the film’s narrow view indicates an understanding that looking over your shoulder is much easier when you aren’t asking questions about who’s beside you, too.

However, this gives the film an opacity that cuts a bit too close to the characteristic sins of its designated Big Bads. For a film about disclosure, Citizenfour holds back a lot. Like I said earlier, the film doesn’t go into the extent or the fallout of Snowden’s leaks either. There’s no mention or analysis of these disclosures’ effects on the US and UK intelligence communities, of what other forces (and states) can do with the leaked information, of what consequences (if any) the ensuing shake-up will have for civilians. That cuts out even more essential context for the leaks that Citizenfour asks you to judge, even applaud.

Overall, it’s an absorbing and illuminating documentary, though one that asks for more trust than its choices arguably earn. It’s a quality that Citizenfour shares with both Snowden and the agencies he exposes; in that sense, at the very least, Poitras has crafted the perfect portrayal.


Neither a bang nor a whimper

Two major incidents in the South China Sea last week.

On Tuesday, the CSIS’ Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative reported China’s new point-defense fortifications on its artificial islands in the Spratlys. Then on Friday, news broke of a Chinese ship illegally seizing a US Navy underwater probe in Philippine waters.


Chinese installations on Johnson Reef, care of the CSIS/AMTI report.

A lot of the ensuing analysis has focused on the US response and these events’ implications for US-China relations. That’s understandable, considering the US’ Asia pivot and the friction arising from territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But it’s exactly because of those disputes that I’m driven to examine what these events might mean for the Philippines, which—despite recent walk-backs of our stance on China—remains a claimant to these contested areas.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay recently declared that the Philippines will not stop Chinese construction on these islands. He also insisted that other nations concerned by these new developments can deal with China on their own. To wit:

“There are other countries that will have special concerns insofar as these activities of China are concerned. Such as… the right to the freedom of navigation that they would like to protect and overflight operations – the United States is concerned about this, Japan is concerned about this, the European Union is concerned about this […] Let them take whatever action is necessary in the pursuit of their national interest… and we will leave it at that, for the Philippines, we have our bilateral engagements with China.”

I see some worrying implications from Sec. Yasay’s response, and I’ll try to go into those one by one.

First, it’s important to look at how China asserts its claims in the South China Sea. The prevailing strategy seems to be a push for de facto legitimacy. Perhaps to reduce space for contest, China mainly stakes its claims through practice: however shaky the concept of Chinese sovereignty over the Spratlys (and other territories) might be, China makes that notion “real” by acting as if it already is.

Infrastructure and personnel deployments, of which these installations are just the newest example, form the primary pillars for China’s territorial claims. (In a way, the claims are their own “proof.”) By leaving these new installations unchallenged, we’re giving China free rein in the main avenue it uses to validate its claims: practice, and the situation on the ground. China gains greater control over territories in all but name. Remember that this is the country that refused to participate in proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and later rejected that court’s rulings. It’s safe to assume that “name” is a secondary consideration for China here.

If international opposition or rebuke does not involve substantial effects on its actual control over these islands, or on its global standing more generally, then it seems China will not be deterred.

Second: Global standing is key. The Philippines is clearly disadvantaged in these disputes. (This is also why I’m skeptical of bilateral talks as a means of resolution.) One of the few things we can leverage against China is its status on the international stage: its credibility, and any effects that a blow to its reputation might have on relations with key foreign entities. Those are the only levers we can pull that have real impact on China’s economic, military, diplomatic capacities. (Hence the missed opportunity that is the PCA ruling, I think, but that’s a different point.)

The South China Sea disputes involve many other states. By taking the lead—notably in the PCA case—the Philippines adds weight to its own claims and puts itself in a better position to influence how regional (and even global) powers approach China. International cooperation makes the Philippines a bigger player in these disputes than it could realistically be otherwise.

By leaving other concerned states to deal with China by themselves, we signal an aversion to joint responses or multilateral approaches for these disputes. This weakens diplomacy-based support for our own claims.

That brings me to my third point: Secretary Yasay’s statements are troubling in light of other recent shifts in Philippine foreign policy. Just a week ago, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the Philippines would “very likely” stop aiding US freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. (There are many problems with US-Philippine military relations, but those are for a different post altogether.) It’s worth noting that US was our foremost military partner for decades. With China far outstripping us in naval capabilities, the bulk of whatever armed presence we can assert in the South China Sea stems from US partnerships.

As Secretary Yasay keeps reminding us, we’ve already put the PCA ruling “on the back burner,” watering down the legal buttresses of our position. Cutting off any involvement with US patrols in the South China Sea signals a retreat from our own claims on yet another front.

Secretary Yasay notes that objecting to these very real developments will do harm, whereas there’s nothing to be lost by keeping silent. Diplomatic rules of thumb generally agree, and we don’t have the military capabilities to pose credible challenges in the sphere that China’s claims are working in (i.e., reality on the ground). But silence disregards and undermines our capacity for opposition in the spheres that our claims work in: legal, diplomatic, conceptual. Any declarations we make about defending our claims hold no water when we’ve already ceded them in practice.

Besides, Secretary Yasay’s assurances that we will “pursue peaceful means at which all of this can be prevented” are belied by his own declaration that the Philippines will refrain from calling or issuing a note verbale regarding these developments. This silence, we are led to believe, will lead to warmer bilateral relations between the Philippines and China.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Defense Ministry justifies its new military installations by reminding everyone that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha [Spratly] islands and its adjacent waters.” Xinhua reports that China’s seizure of a US naval probe in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—well beyond even China’s problematic nine-dash line—occurred “in its [China’s] waters.”

China seems confident in its ability to assert power even within clear-cut Philippine boundaries. Whatever “good relations” are being built between China and the Philippines seem to come at the price of surrendering any credible opposition we might stake against China’s claims in our territories.

Secretary Yasay notes that “we can later on go back into the issue of our dispute with the South China Sea,” once relations have improved. At the rate things are going, those discussions will be moot and academic.

So You Want to Contact Your Representative

So you’d like to ask your district representative and our senators to say NO to considering kids potential criminals, restoring the death penalty, and reversing the Sin Tax Law, among other issues. Well, it’s time to remind our lawmakers to listen to the people they’re supposed to be representing. Here’s how to get in touch:

If you’d like to use social media:

Paolo Chikiamco posted a guide to finding your representatives here. If you need some help with what to say, you can modify the scripts in the “Call Your Representatives” section below.

You can also send emails or letters.

For writing against the death penalty bill: The International Drug Policy Consortium has a form letter that you can use – click here.

(I’m working on templates for letters against lowering the age of criminal responsibility and reversing the Sin Tax Law. Will update the post with links once those are done.)

You can call your representatives!

I know this sounds like a scary or nerve-wracking option, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds! Plus, a phone call is harder to ignore than a Facebook message, email, or letter. If you feel up to the task, here’s what you’ve got to do:

  1. Look up your local representative’s contact details.

This is a list of the current members of Congress. This is what you’ll see when you click that link:


You can sort alphabetically, by region/district, and so on.

Clicking on a name will show you that representative’s contact details:


You can also send letters to their offices!

Meanwhile, here is a list of the current members of the Senate, along with their offices’ contact details. Proposed bills need to pass through the Senate before being passed into law, so it helps to contact our senators, too.

2. Call them up!

Worried about what to say? Here are some scripts to guide you:

For calling against the death penalty bill:

Good morning/afternoon!

I am (name), a resident of (area), and I’m calling to ask (Senator/Representative) to say NO to the proposed bill to reinstate the death penalty. There is no solid scientific evidence that this measure will have a deterrent effect on crime, and with our flawed justice system, the country’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens will be hit hardest.

Please ask (Senator/Representative) to denounce the reinstatement of the death penalty and say no to this bill when it comes before the plenary.

Thank you.

If you know your representative has a track record of opposing similar measures, you can say:

Good morning/afternoon!

I am (name), a resident of (area) concerned about House Bill No. 1 calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. (Senator/Representative) has worked to uphold the principles of justice and human rights before, and we need (his/her/their) help again. I’m calling to express my support for (Senator/Representative), and to ask (him/her/them) to keep fighting for our citizen’s dignity and human rights.

Please ask (Senator/Representative) to denounce the reinstatement of the death penalty and say no to this bill when it comes before the plenary.

Thank you.

To speak out against lowering the age of criminal responsibility, you can say:

Good morning/afternoon!

I am (name), a resident of (area), and I’m calling to ask (Senator/Representative) to say NO to the proposed bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility. Allowing children as young as 9 years old to be considered criminals will not lower our country’s crime rate. Instead, it will subject young children to harsh punishment and prison conditions, and leave them even more vulnerable to neglect or abuse.

Please ask (Senator/Representative) to speak out against the proposal to lower the age of criminal responsibility and say no to this bill when it comes before the plenary.

Thank you.

To ask your representative to oppose the reversal of the Sin Tax Law, you can say:

Good morning/afternoon!

I am (name), a resident of (area), and I’m calling to ask (Senator/Representative) to say NO to the changes to the Sin Tax Law. Since its implementation in 2012, our current Sin Tax Law has helped fund expanded rural health care programs, curb the incidence of smoking in our country, and boost government sin tax revenues. Institutions like the World Bank have praised the Sin Tax Law as a model for transparent and effective sin tax measures.

Please ask (Senator/Representative) to fight for our health and the welfare of our tobacco farmers by saying no to this bill when it comes before the plenary. Instead, please consider supporting Cong. Joey Salceda’s bill for a P40 unitary tax.

Thank you.

If they’ve got a track record of being pro-health/pro-finance and/or supporting the Sin Tax Law, you can say:

Good morning/afternoon!

I am (name), a resident of (area) concerned about Congressman Dakila Cua’s tobacco taxation bill. I’d like to thank (Senator/Representative) for supporting pro-health/pro-finance bills, and ask for their continued support. The existing Sin Tax Law has already done a lot to improve the health and livelihood of Filipinos.

Please ask (Senator/Representative) to say no to Congressman Cua’s taxation bill and consider supporting Congressman Joey Salceda’s proposal for a P40 unitary tax instead.

Thank you.

Whom should you try to reach?

Of course, there’s your local representative, as well as any other representatives and senators you want to contact. Aside from them, though, here are some key figures to get in touch with:

For the death penalty bill: House Justice Committee

Committee Office:

3/F RVM Building, House of Representatives, Quezon City
Telephone no. 9315001 local 7160
Telefax no. 9513027
Committee Secretary: Atty. Narcisa H. Guevarra

I’ve also looked up the voting history for the 2006 bill that abolished the death penalty. (HB04826 from the 13th Congress, if you want to search for it through Congress’ LEGIS records) This being the Philippines, many of the representatives who voted to abolish the death penalty are still in Congress – or have been succeeded by people who are presumably their relatives. Let’s hold them to their 2006 votes (or their relative’s vote) and ask them to oppose the death penalty once again.

For the Sin Tax Law reversal: House Ways and Means Committee

Committee Office:
Basement, Northwing Building, House of Representatives, Quezon City
Telephone no. 9315001 local 7643/7633
Telefax no. 9314955

Reminders and Tips

  1. Always be polite and respectful. I understand we’ve all got strong feelings about these bills – why else would we pour all this effort into opposing them? – but chances are we’ll be talking to a staff member or secretary. Let’s not take our emotions out on them.
  2. Be clear and concise. We want to let our representatives know our thoughts, yes, but more importantly: we want to tell them what votes/actions we think they can take to best represent us. Don’t muddle up communications. State what you’re contacting them for, briefly explain your reasons for reaching out, and then let them know what you’d like them to do.
  3. Don’t expect to get through on the first try. It might take a few calls to even get a chance to talk to someone, or you might not get an immediate response to your email/PM/letter. Keep trying. But once you do get through, don’t flood them. They’ve taken note of your message; now give other people a chance to get through, and maybe wait a day or two before you follow up.
  4. Consider coordinating with friends. Maybe get together for a few hours and email representatives or send messages to different senators. Set a day when everyone you know will call in. We’re not going to spam them, but having a succession of different people contacting them about an issue will leave an impression.
Representatives are not meant to lord over constituents or to impose detrimental policies on us. They’re there to be our voices and craft laws that will benefit our communities and our country. Reaching out is one way to remind them of that duty. Let’s go, friends!

Defining Dictatorship

Last Friday, November 18, the family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos secreted his body into the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) for a long-contested burial. The Philippine National Police and the country’s armed forces secured the area, and a chopper from the national air force flew the strongman’s body down from Ilocos to be interred among the nation’s most revered citizens.

Look, I’m not highlighting the government’s role in this to be petty.

No, I’m pointing it out to underscore how the converse can also be true: just as the participation of government assets helped the event take place, a hero’s burial for Marcos enables certain possibilities for the government, too.

Martial Law is the picture of authoritarianism for the Philippines, and certainly the country’s most recent and most visceral experience of authoritarian rule. The Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board, created specifically to address the abuses wrought during that era, will be processing over 75,000 cases well into 2017. The country itself has been paying off Marcos-incurred foreign debt since the dictator’s ousting, and will continue to do so until 2025. The Martial Law period is a weight we struggle under to this day, and its memory is the strongest cornerstone in any conceptual defenses the country has against the idea – and appeal – of dictatorship.

In that sense, enshrining Martial Law’s chief architect in our Heroes’ Cemetery is exactly the kind of blow that accelerates what seems to be the steady rhetorical erosion of those defenses. For a long while now, various members of the current administration have, in one way or another, presented an increasingly chilling picture of the kind of leadership that they deem necessary to, as they say, “save the country”: disregard for due process and basic rights, especially if “required” to secure the “greater good” (i.e., national stability and progress); awesome executive powers concentrated in one office; ruthless policies, often carried out by emboldened law enforcement and armed forces; unquestioned and unaccountable authority. In that light, the rehabilitation of Marcos’ legacy seems not only understandable but essential.

This sudden hero’s burial is the gravest instance thus far, but this is not the first time that President Duterte and his surrogates have attempted to reframe our understanding of leadership.

And so we arrive, again, at the Marcos burial. Intended or not, it can – perhaps it already does; who knows? – serve dual purposes: erase one of our key reasons for resisting authoritarian rule, yes, but retroactively create a precedent that affirms our current administration’s predilection for strongman rule, too.

Many of the President’s supporters spin the above statements as misquoted or misunderstood; as off-the-cuff pronouncements that shouldn’t be seen as indicators of policy or intent; or perhaps worst, as jokes. But the President himself hasn’t made a secret of his beliefs and methods, and he has a long and public record to belie the assertion that his recent pronouncements don’t hold any kernel of sincerity or truth.

As the Communications Secretary has said: “He already warned the electorate that if you vote for me, there will be bloodshed. …[He] was voted.” In other words, we knew what we were in for.

Besides, campaign promises aside, we have had enough time to see for ourselves. Even prior to assuming the presidency, before he had any 2016 election voters to supposedly woo with promises of swift and total “justice,” Mr. Duterte already defended the kind of governance that deemed shoot-to-kill orders as legal, proper, and moral. As far back as 2001, assassination and targeted killings have been Mr. Duterte’s answer to crime, an approach driven by the idea of “[serving] the greater good no matter what it takes”; unsurprisingly, the Human Rights Watch notes that his political rise “coincided…[with] city mayors [gaining]…greater operational control over their police forces.”

And so on, and so on.

So, pause. Go back. Take a look at those dates. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a far-ranging one. The fact is, for all of his apparent inconsistencies, his volatility and his habit of veering off-script, certain key aspects of the President’s statements and behavior have remained unchanged. Indeed, they have been taken up and amplified by many members of his administration, from Cabinet members like Andanar and Aguirre to his many allies in the Congressional supermajority. If these statements are all jokes, un-meant, of no consequence, then we should worry about how much time and vehemence our government has poured into repeating them. And if these aren’t jokes, then we should worry even more.

Either way, intended or not, all of these instances add up. Taken together, these pronouncements can redraw – have perhaps already started redrawing – the lines that delineate what actions and decisions we deem acceptable, even necessary, for the good of the country.

We can quibble about questions of intent and interpretation; it’s tempting to refrain from even mentioning any of these instances in the same sentence as “dictatorship.” Sure. Okay. Nobody wants to be the hysteric. But refusing to even consider these instances in aggregate and to think about what they might mean for the future of our country contributes, in its own way, to the same erosions of memory and resistance that these events are helping along.

By opting for the supposed objectivity of “wait and see,” or by dismissing these statements as jokes or hyperbole, we are not being charitable. Instead, we’re giving a pass to these words and actions – as well as to the particular brands of history, values, and outlook that come with them. Too “trivial” to be engaged with, too frivolous (or alternatively, too important to national welfare) for critique, let alone alarm. In short, we’re letting potential seeds of dictatorship live.

The motto of dictatorship, as authoritarianism scholar Sarah Kendzior notes, is: “It can’t happen here.” But it has happened. Dismissing the possibility of it happening again only makes us blind to recent rhetorical trends that could easily be transformed into the conceptual foundations of a new regime. When we file our own dark history as unthinkable – or worse yet, as desirable – then we unmoor our present from the hard-won anchors that can keep us from being swept away. By forgetting, by agreeing again and again to let things go, we diminish our capacity and willingness to resist.

What’s the word?

From Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, which I also mentioned over here and which I’m still reading:

“Peoples of color” sounded awkward if translated literally, so I used the standard Chinese term for minorities: shaoshu minzu. Of course, that was just as odd in English: “small-number ethnic groups.” Perhaps somewhere in the world there was a language that handled this issue gracefully, but it wasn’t English or Chinese.

As far as I know, it isn’t Filipino either, which doesn’t seem to have a similar blanket term for minorities at all. (This observation is just off the top of my head, though, so please feel free to correct me.) I asked a friend who speaks Cebuano, and she also came up blank.

This also brought us to the interesting flavor of the words for “foreigner” or “immigrant”: dayuhan or dayo, which carry connotations of passage and transience that I think are worth probing. When we speak of foreigners, there’s the obvious dimension of “they’re not from here,” but the words we use to refer to them also bear some shades of, “they’re just passing through” or “they’re not going to stay.” I might just be spouting threadbare thoughts here, but I think that makes for some interesting linguistics-inspired takes on how Filipinos might interact with issues of im/migration that have become so prominent today.

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.


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.

On human rights and drug-related killings

I caught a really thought-provoking interview on human rights featuring the philosopher John Tasioulas recently. Being an (old) episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, which caters to a general audience, the interview focused on a basic1 question: What are human rights?

Basic, but not simple, since “human rights” has become both a very charged term and, perhaps in some circles, one so overused as to have turned into a bit of a hollow buzzword. Which is why it’s notable how Tasioulas kicks off the interview by first dispelling the, shall we say, “special snowflake” air that has enveloped the concept: human rights are only one kind of rights, he asserts. Now this doesn’t undercut the importance of these rights, but it at least does away with the tunnel vision that they tend to inspire and situates them within a broader category of similar concepts that, he implies, are no less worthy of discussion.

But the dissolution of the term “human rights”‘ definite edges is, like I’ve said, something of a problem. So what distinguishes human rights from other kinds of rights? Tasioulas says: universality, these rights’ applicability throughout humanity.

This is the point I find most interesting, mostly because of personal experience. Ever since it became clear that our new president had won the post, there’s been a disturbing spike in drug-related extra-judicial killings. The number keeps ticking up to this day, and there’s been a lot of debate about the validity and ethics of these incidents.