De Lima’s arrest: Justice as revenge

Vicente L. Rafael

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De Lima’s arrest: Justice as revenge
De Lima has already been judged guilty by Duterte, Aguirre, and the rest of the President's followers. It's all about payback, with interest.

In one recent photo on her blog, Mocha Uson is wearing a print of Senator Leila de Lima’s mug shot on her t-shirt. It’s a strange move. Usually, you wear the figures you admire. Their image on your body becomes an extension of yourself and an expression of your position. Here, she is wearing, and thus iconizing, someone she obviously holds in contempt, and without any hint of irony. After all, only the mug shots of admired political prisoners or noted celebrities who have stood up to injustice ever make it to this level of commemoration. You wear Malcolm X or Maya Angelou, not Hitler or Pol Pot.

So what do we make of Mocha’s unironic wearing of De Lima? It seems to me that here she displays a mixture of envy and hatred. She establishes a certain intimacy with her enemy’s face and so exhibits a perverse love for De Lima in the same way you cherish your enemies because they give you something to live for, to focus on, to channel your energy. Thanks to them, you now have a platform on which to refashion yourself (here, literally).

And so, too, with President Rodrigo Duterte who loves his enemies even more deeply, all 7,000 plus, because it enables him to create objects on which to erect his power. He’s invested in the fiction of a drug-deranged population, for without them, whom would he kill? And as he has said on many occasions, he must kill because that is the most direct and dramatic way he can assert his authority.

The arrest and detention of De Lima has been lustily celebrated by the DDS (Duterte Diehard Supporters). According them, she got her comeuppance, her just deserts. They’re happy not so much because she’s guilty of all those charges of profiting from and abetting the drug trade (charges which are yet to be proven in court and at the moment exist as a series of allegations from the most dubious of sources – convicted drug lords themselves).

Rather, it’s because she dared challenge Duterte for his human rights violations and thus humiliated him. “Pinahiya niya si Digong, ‘tang ina niya,” they might say, relishing their freedom to use cuss words with abandon. On top of it all, she dared to investigate and prosecute other senators and former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo while she was Secretary of the Department of Justice (hence, the charge that she’s being a hypocrite by decrying her arrest).

For the DDS, then, it’s all about payback, with interest. In other words, her guilt or innocence is beside the point, since she has already been judged guilty by Duterte, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, and the rest of the President’s followers. What matters is that justice is being served. And justice here is about revenge: the visceral and immediate humiliation of the person, regardless of the legality or illegality of her actions.

We could thus think of De Lima’s arrest as a kind lynching where popular justice is administered by the DDS, or more precisely by their representatives. As with any lynching, the crowd gathers (in this case on social media), cheering the hanging and disfigurement of the guilty.

ANTI-DE LIMA. A group of protesters wait outside the Senate prior to the arrest of Senator Leila de Lima. They claim that their shirts were given by an anonymous sponsor. File photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler


The populist exercise of justice is certainly not exclusive to the DDS, as it has long been characteristic of the revolutionary left as well as the reactionary right. It is well worth remembering that alongside the peaceful and prayerful massing of people at EDSA, there was also the gleeful mob who burst into Malacañang Palace, pillaging and defacing the living quarters and the photographs of the Marcoses which was as close as they could get to violating their bodies.

What we’re seeing among the DDS is thus nothing new. It is the practice of scapegoating that grows out of an ancient economy of revenge (in Tagalog, gantihan”, which nicely sums up in one word the relationship of equivalence and exchange in acts of revenge: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, until we all go blind and toothless).

Revenge, in turn, is fueled by the mirror (and so reverse) identification with the figure of the beloved enemy. Perhaps this might explain (though, of course, it does not exhaust) the exultant feelings and expressions of satisfaction characteristic of the DDS response to De Lima. For them, her fate is a kind of allegory for the “change” that Duterte promised, though in fact that change is simply a matter of exchanging one accursed figure for another. –

Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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