war on drugs

[Newsstand] Patricia Evangelista and writing the war

John Nery

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[Newsstand] Patricia Evangelista and writing the war
In 'Some People Need Killing,' the acclaimed journalist's searing, searching account of Rodrigo Duterte’s calamitous 'war on drugs,' we come face to face with the enormity of evil – and the language that enables it

Rodrigo Duterte was the only candidate for Philippine president who promised to kill thousands of his potential voters to solve what he called a drug crisis; he would fill Manila Bay with the corpses of as many as a hundred thousand drug addicts, he said. Once voted into office, he made good on that promise. 

Some People Need Killing, the journalist Patricia Evangelista’s much-anticipated account of Duterte’s promised war on drugs, includes in its breadth of detail and casualty count and dramatic incident some of those very Duterte voters who ended up killed in Duterte’s war. There is even an entire chapter on Duterte supporters consumed by regret. This may have been an effort on Evangelista’s part to end her harrowing, thoughtful, absorbing account on a less bleak note, but she is above all else a reporter, and her faithful reporting does not sugarcoat reality. Thousands of extrajudicial killings had changed the country irrevocably. A nation of martyrs has become a country of killers. Some of the early vigilantes called it right. We are Duterte, they said.

Evangelista’s account is a memoir of her coverage of the EJKs and what led her to it (it is subtitled “A Memoir of Murder in My Country”); but it is also reportage, some new and some already published but expanded, filled with even more detail and drawn with more context, all of it reworked into a whole; it is, lastly, an analysis, of how a democracy can die.

(Watch the book launch that was held Wednesday morning, October 18, at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. You may order the book here.)

Much of that analysis reflects a writer’s sensibility. Evangelista, in the field, looks for the telling detail or the outrageous fact; at her writing table, she looks for the enabling word, the language that kills. In this review’s lead paragraph, for instance, she will likely seize on the idiomatic irony of “making good on” a promise of evil, and write a thoughtful paragraph or page on how ostensibly moral phrasing can subvert morality. 

Face, Head, Person

Since her twenties, Evangelista has had a reputation for beautiful writing. (It isn’t true, as she asserts in a self-effacing passage, that she was hired to write a column by the Philippine Daily Inquirer only because of her youth.) Her stories from the war on drugs, especially those in Part II, will add to that reputation.

“Marcelo worked as a truck driver’s assistant. He lived, with his partner and three children, in a house just a few feet from the shanty where his mother had given birth to him thirty-one years earlier. Unlike many of the Payatas settlements, the Daa home sat in a remote clearing, requiring a long walk downhill from the main highway, through a patch of woods where the thick canopy of trees did little to mask the stench of the nearby dump site. The Daas lived in a lonely huddle of squat houses pieced together from tarps and plywood, their tin roofs weighed down by large rocks and washbasins and a chipped Blue’s Clues doorstop lying on its side. A sixty-foot ravine curved around the edges.”

Comparing this paragraph with the original and already fine description, in the Rappler series in which it appeared, the reader can see that the phrasing has tightened, even though more detail had been added. And the reworking of that last sentence, cutting it just so, reflects and raises the tension in that story.

But her account also includes passages like these (this one is on “salvage” in Philippine English): “Salvage-as-murder does not exist in most Filipino dictionaries. Nor does the definition appear in the many English-Filipino compendiums that are available for academic use. But every child in my country knows this meaning …. A salvage yard is not a fenced-in path of concrete with secondhand cars and vintage lamps for thrifting. A salvage yard is a street corner in Tondo, or the right lane of an overpass at dawn. A salvage yard is a cemetery, unless there is no one to give the dead man a name.”

It is this attention to both detail and diction that sets Evangelista’s work apart.

Doing the inconceivable

“I spent much of my time sorting through the convoluted grammar of official police reports,” she writes, in another characteristically self-deprecating self-description. But out of this basic step, Police Beat Reporting 101, she captures the accidental anti-poetry of bureaucratic language, which makes the inconceivable doable.

For instance: “Cops [in a buy-bust operation] use the same word for fulfillment as is used for newlyweds: consummation. ‘After the consummated transaction,’ read one police report, ‘poseur-buyer and companion arrested the suspect.’”

Another instance: “In the black-and-white of a Philippine spot report, ‘suspect sensed presence of lawmen’ comes just before ‘suspect drew his firearm’.” On August 15, 2017, in what became colloquially known as a One Time Big Time operation, 32 persons were killed in one province alone. At least eight spot reports filed by the police struck a variation of the same theme of presence sensed. Evangelista quotes the reports, and presents them one after the other. “At 12.20 a.m., suspects Bernard Lizardo and Justine Bucacao, ‘after sensing that they were dealing with an undercover police poseur’ …. At 12.40 a.m., suspects Jimmy Gorgon and Bartolome Marin ‘sensed the presence of operatives’.” And so on, until 4.30 am. The cumulative effect is both hilarious and horrifying.

And yet another instance: “There is a phrase that has been used whenever police officers sit down to brag about their prowess in the field. It is also a phrase that appears in a certain species of police report …. The suspect is discovered dead, or almost dead, but that discovery occurs only after ‘the smoke of gunfire subsides.’ In Binondo … ‘after the smoke of gun battle subsided’ two suspects were ‘seen sprawled lifeless inside the rooms of the small house.’ In Santa Cruz, ‘when the smoke of gunfire subsided,’ police reported the subject ‘lay in the cemented pavement mortally wounded’. The same is true for a man in Tondo, found dead just after ‘the smoke of gunfire subsided,’ and in Jose Abad Santos, where another subject was found lying on another cemented pavement dead of gunshot wounds—‘after the smoke of gunfire subsided’.”

Duterte, more rambling than a police report but with straighter grammar, comes under the same scrutiny. Evangelista’s “sorting” of the President’s speech is a series of compelling compilations, a Greatest Hits collection, of violent rhetoric. 

She recounts what amounts to Duterte’s origin story, as the man with the iron hand (she carefully indicates, in one of her fastidious endnotes, that Duterte had related this story at least six times). It involves his encounter as a new mayor of Davao City with the unrepentant rapist of an 18-month-old baby. The rapist, asked why he did it, gave a truly monstrous answer. “If that’s the answer you get,” Duterte asked, “what will you do?” But he never did say exactly what he did to the rapist. Just that “I did do something,” with a new revolver he had received for Christmas. Don’t blame him, the President said, “if I am driven also to insanity.”

In another 11 speeches, Duterte claimed that 77,000 people had died in the hands of drug addicts in the three to four years before his election. “You know, in the wake of the drug contamination in the Philippines, 77,000 deaths, drug-related. Who will answer for that? Who will take the cudgels for those innocent—the young women raped? The ones held up in jeepneys—who will answer for them?” (Evangelista quickly and completely debunks Duterte’s mistaken statistics.) But the point of all the alleged numbers was dehumanization: “A lot of them are no longer viable as human beings in this planet,” he said.

In another seven speeches, at least, “His Excellency Rodrigo Duterte, commander in chief, ordered his own men to violate not just the spirit but the letter of the law.” Shoot the suspect, he said, or hinted at it – and he said it again and again, in Davao City, in Davao again but in another venue, in Clark Freeport, in Marawi City, again in Davao, in Quezon City, in the presidential palace. 

Language as enabler

In a particularly provocative passage that runs over four pages, Evangelista questions her own translation of the Filipino word for “beautiful,” in posting about Duterte’s monstrous response to the One Time Big Time operation in Bulacan province, which killed 32 suspects in one night. Of the death toll, the President had said, “Maganda yun.” In her social media, Evangelista posted her translation of the President’s words: “That’s good.”

In Some People Need Killing, Evangelista writes: “In Filipino, maganda means ‘beautiful.’ It can also mean ‘good.’ It was unclear what the President meant that afternoon in August, but there was a reason every English-language local news organization chose to use the word good instead of beautiful. Good, as egregious a judgment as it was, was far less outrageous than beautiful. Beautiful would have offered an element of pleasure, a romanticizing of brutality, the impression that the commander in chief of a democratic republic  was not just pleased but delighted by the ruthless killing of his citizens.”

What follows is an extraordinary list of the many things that Duterte had called beautiful in public. Perhaps nothing catches both Duterte’s appeal as a leader and the anomaly of his leadership so accurately – and yes, even beautifully – as the list Evangelista put together. It includes the President’s older girlfriend (“more beautiful than the other one”), his sidearm, Melania Trump, his circumcised penis, bodies that “only had one bullet hole in each head” – and yes, 32 suspects killed in one night.

If those are the answers you get, what will you do?

Evangelista suggests we must pay attention to the normalization of abusive or violent language, because it can quickly become the rhetoric of authoritarian return.

Several stories stand out in Evangelista’s account: The fifth man, the tragedy of Heart de Chavez, the bizarre police friend, the slapping of Djastin with a D. The build-up to her one encounter with the vigilante leader known familiarly as Commander Maning is well-paced and thrilling (and differs markedly from the original Rappler series). 

Only the second chapter seemed to me to be weak; Philippine history was painted with too broad a brush. But I counted 11 instances when her stories, or her writing, stopped me momentarily – and the first of these, a revelation about her grandfather, was in that second chapter. Another passage that stopped me: Her disquisition on the transformation of the word “laban” or fight, associated with the opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, to “nanlaban,” or fought back, now forever part of the enabling language of the war on drugs.

She also provides checklists, of a sort. For the aspiring journalist, two pages worth. For the aspiring vigilante, three. The enormity of evil requires more space. – Rappler.com

Read Evangelista’s Murder in Manila series below:

Murder in Manila: Some People Need Killing Part 1

Murder in Manila: The cops were showing off Part 2

Murder in Manila: Get it from the chief Part 3

Murder in Manila: What did the CSG do wrong? Part 4

Murder in Manila: I finish the job Part 5

Murder in Manila: There are snakes everywhere Part 6

Murder in Manila: It’s war Conclusion

Veteran journalist John Nery is a Rappler columnist, editorial consultant, and program host. “In the Public Square” airs on Rappler social media platforms every Wednesday at 8 pm.

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