[OPINION] Courage in the face of injustice
Below is the speech of former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno at the Forward Pilipinas forum held at Samsung Hall, SM Aura Premier, on September 1.
Good afternoon, my friends. I call you my friends because I know that many of you have a shared commitment to see our country achieve greatness. To thrive as individuals and as one community.
I also call you friends because we have a common future, we who love and live in this country. What I have to say may be painful, and so I want us together, to be in a quiet place in the next 15 minutes, the quiet place in our souls that will allow us to see our country's collective pain, and out of some clear realizations, find in it the key to our redemption.
There has never been a time in our country's history where we have been this confused about right and wrong. Even at the height of the injustices during Marcos' Martial Law, we were angry but we were not confused. We fought Marcos' brutality as a people. By any normal legal and ethical standard, all of us, together, should have immediately resisted the bloodbath of no less than 27,000 Filipinos in a matter of two years. When the cadavers started piling up, we should have let out a scream for the madness to stop. But we did not. All of us know now, and knew then, that the killing of innocents, propelled by a call to Kill, Kill and again Kill, goes against our very ethos as a people. Inside us, we are asking where our beliefs in a God, in the value of human life and compassion, where have they all gone?
And because such questions are so fundamental, you and I know we cannot suppress those questions. You cannot suppress them because you will have to prepare yourself by asking: what will I do if the killing of the innocent touches my brother, my sister, my friend, my child? Will I have the right to protest in righteous anger at the brutality and injustice? Or will I have to accept the rationalization that my beloved is just collateral damage in a brutal war? Because we did not protest when the dead of others met their unjust end, shall we be forced to just bury our own dead quietly? Muffling our cries and weeping in silence? Unable to fully mourn, unable to be fully angry, just bewildered, guilt-ridden, paralyzed. Yes, paralyzed.
We have allowed ourselves to be paralyzed – from thinking, from acting, from protesting, out of fear. We have become fearful because our brains stopped functioning; and we allowed our brains to stop functioning the moment we gave up on justice. We gave up on justice when we stopped caring about whether the police have the right targets, are supported by law when they pull the trigger, or will engage in a massive cover up of the killings. And more chillingly, that we have let loose marauding assassins roaming our streets. We gave up on each other, saying we as a people are collectively hopeless. We think we cannot do anything about crime, we think we cannot secure justice anyway, so let's just kill off the addicts and the criminals.
It is not true that we have to kill relentlessly. Who controls the ports that let in tons of shabu? Who lets in the vehicles that transport the shabu to the repacking site? Who can place ears and assets in every barangay? Who can make arrests? Who convicts and jails? The answer to all these is government. I say government leadership is just too plain lazy to think through the complexity of the drug problem. That or it is simply a leadership that thrives on fear and anarchy.
So you say, it is too hard, maybe even impossible; government is too dysfunctional. I ask you, is the answer to a dysfunctional government the killing of Filipinos? No human being can act as accuser, witness, judge, and executioner at the same time. By any language, in any legal or moral system, that is the height of injustice – whether it results in the death of a human being or the illegal removal from office of another, that is the death of justice.
Crisis of the soul
So what I will say to you is a very daring idea, one that many are unwilling to say today: We can't think that we can solve our problems because we don't hope, we dare not hope because we are afraid, and we are afraid because we have too many considerations. One I often hear is, "I am afraid of being bashed." Another, "I don't want to offend my friends or family who idolize our leader." Another, "I don't want to hamper my chances at promotion or reelection. Still another, "I am so afraid for myself physically."
Friends, all the great teachings of humanity and religion say that there is only one thing we need to be afraid of: not doing what is right. For those who believe in the existence of the human soul, you know the eternal consequence of acting against your conscience. You will only fully realize your potential when you act justly for the sake of others. There is nothing worth doing more than doing what is right.
For what we have now is a crisis of the soul – the soul of the nation.
When gross injustice assaults our senses, day in and day out, and we do not express our outrage, when we do not demand justice, something inside us dies. To avoid the pain of the slow death of our souls, we have had to divert our attention to other things. We even rationalize what we are seeing. What we are actually doing is we drown out our conscience that says: You have been made in the image of God. Do what is right. Respond to the higher call of what you were meant to be.
On the other hand, when despite our fears, we fix our sights on a vision of the future and rise above the base things that prevent us from being fully human, from being fully responsive to the needs of others, then something inside us is awakened, and something beautiful happens: We will have found our courage.
We may never see the day when we confront an enemy without our knees trembling or our voices shaking, but when we do confront the enemy, that very act transforms us, because we proceed from an inner conviction that what we are doing is right.
The prospect of speaking out against injustice may overwhelm us, but when we focus on the goal of seeing our country freed from injustices that pollute the land, then we will muster our internal strength, cry out for help, and fight.
Mortgaging our future
For what is it that we are fighting? We are fighting against the orphaning of our nation and the mortgaging of our future.
That is why we must resist the argument of collateral damage. We must resist not only a false excuse for senseless death, for what do we have now but a generation of orphans, conservatively estimated at 80,000. Many of these children saw their parents killed before their eyes. They will grow up angry, bitter, vengeful, confused. Broken. No government agency has accepted responsibility for them. In some communities, the children of those who were killed have turned into addicts themselves, because nobody is looking after them. The Catholic Church, who has taken orphans under their care, have only been consistently attacked by the President. Attacked for speaking the truth and for being brave enough to try to protect children.
And what are human rights advocates really fighting for? For the rule of law, a working democracy, and due process. You see, they are fighting not just to give justice to the dead, but also to protect you. Many believe that the judiciary has been compromised. This is the same judiciary that should have, under our Constitution's design, the ability to shield you from harm and injustice. When it comes to our rights, what applies to one must apply to all. We cannot say that some of us have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, to be heard by a judge before they are arrested. And then, in the same breath, say some of us don't. No!
Friends, because they have destroyed checks and balance in government and have rendered inutile our due process rights, then you are as vulnerable as the poor that they consider as expendable. Maybe it will not be about drugs, you look too honorable for that, you live in a gated village. But maybe you crossed the wrong person, maybe that person is close to the powerful, or can buy off the powerful. And when that time comes, where are your rights? Friends, we need to understand the concept of shared humanity. When the rules don't work to ensure that human dignity is respected, when people are seen as no better than animals, then the social mindset that will allow the extermination of a great number of human beings set in. In other words, genocide is all too possible.
It was to prevent this, the downward slide of our country that I sent a letter in August 2016, asking the President to stop publicly proclaiming who he thinks are narco-judges. I had to send that letter, because I saw the fear among our judges, the fear of hearing their names announced in public and their lives endangered. Because I knew that if the judges become fearful, many of them will end up refusing to protect our people. We must be brave so that others, especially those who have the power to do good, might likewise be brave.
And yes, we must be brave so that those who need cure can be cured. So that their hope for a new life may not be orphaned. Many of those who are doing good amid us used to be drug addicts. They needed healing and they received it. Hope is as essential to human existence as food. If we give up on a mass of people simply because healing their affliction is burdensome, we forget that society burdened many of them first and pushed them to despair, as to turn to drugs. We must be brave because we cannot give up on human life, on human dignity, on second chances.
When you do the right thing, you will be disparaged, persecuted, and often discouraged. But be heartened by the truth that when you stand for what is right, despite the adversities, and continue to stand, that in itself is a great victory. You have already won.
And as we fight, we learn that courage and the faith that underlies courage are contagious. Do not allow the absence of enough courage to facilitate the imposition of Martial Law. You see, the politicians understand that if the people do not sufficiently protest when their rights are being gradually eroded, it will not be very difficult for actual martial law to be imposed. All it needs is a justification, an event, perhaps real perhaps contrived, but just that, an excuse.
I ask you, however, to view things a little differently. We do not need the formal imposition of martial law for martial law to become a reality. We do not need to see tanks on the street, or men in uniform taking charge. We just need to be sufficiently afraid. Afraid enough to stay quiet when we see wrong, when we see our people being killed, when we know that our country's coffers are being raided. It is not enough that we are angry at brazen corruption by people who will not be punished but only recycled to another position.
If all we do is complain amongst ourselves and not act collectively to publicly denounce corruption and lawlessness in government, then we have imposed Martial Law in our own minds. You see, the first objective of martial law is to impose control. And when we impose controls on ourselves by not speaking the truth when we should, then we would have helped the tyrant win. We would be back to the years of unhindered Marcos looting, allowing our future to be mortgaged.
Part of what government takes from every Filipino, is used to pay off the unconscionable debts that the Marcos regime piled up. And this burden to everyone of us, will go on until 2025. This generation can very well experience another round of horrendous debt burdens.
When controls on government abuse are gone, your future is being mortgaged. Mortgaged because we are leaving a host of problems that will be agonizingly difficult to solve. What you and I can do is be brave. Stand. Have courage. Only then can we hope to prevent the destruction of your generation's future.
On a personal note, allow me to share that my deepest hope is that God Himself will work as to spare your generation from the horrors of a government gone mad. It is to Him that we must look so that we can find in our present deepest pain the secret to our country's redemption.
Maraming salamat po. – Rappler.com