[OPINION] Where lies the terror?

Melba Padilla Maggay

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[OPINION] Where lies the terror?
'It is a supreme irony that Filipinos suspected of being communist are being hounded and hunted down, while communists from Mainland China are being invited to tutor the Senate, most likely on how to lock down and fence us all in for effective social control'

The Anti-Terror Bill naturally triggers in those of us who grew up under martial law memories of the horrors under the Marcos dictatorship. Like Proclamation 1081, it is understandably feared to be used as the ultimate weapon in silencing critics, a tool for social control that bit by bit will erode whatever protection remains within our legal system. (READ: [OPINION] Martial rule without martial law: An anti-terror bill subtext)

Worse, it resembles China’s National Security Law that is now being rammed down the throats of Hongkong residents. China’s harsh suppression of Hongkong dissidents, labeling them as “terrorists” and throwing them in jail, is a prototype of what is likely to happen to us given Duterte’s obsequious pattern of mimicking his hero, Xi Jinping. 

What is the “urgency” of this bill when compared to the need to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and resuscitate the prostrate economy? 

My guess is that it lays down the groundwork for consolidating power in anticipation of the 2022 elections, as well as stem the rising tide of discontent that threatens this regime’s political base. The COVID pandemic has served as a kind of Pandora’s Box, releasing not only disease but all the ills of this society, consequently revealing the government’s criminal ineptitude. Its populist posturing is getting unmasked as the underclasses get blindsided by stupid policies, like letting people go to work but not allowing public transport. 

The poor locked down in their makeshift shanties are beginning to connect – in a more direct way than they have done before – their poverty and powerlessness to the inefficiencies and brute coerciveness of the Duterte government. One distraught woman we encountered in our institute’s relief efforts cried out plaintively, for instance, that her husband was refused admission in 4 hospitals. A few days later, he died. We get asked, “Why is it that the powerful get tested first, while we are left to get sick and die?” Or, “They flout quarantine rules and even hold mañanitas and do not get punished for it, while we get threatened with mass arrest.” 

The pushback against the Anti-Terror Bill is sign of the growing restiveness, not just by the educated elite, but of those who are bearing the brunt of this pandemic – the frontliners, micro-entrepreneurs and other workers in the informal sector, OFWs, the starving poor. Disgust over the handling of this crisis is boiling just beneath the surface, a slow-burning anger that firebrands can exploit. Hence the fear of this regime that the NPA or left-wing elements will fan the seething discontent into flames, as it is already doing in the countryside.

The reflex response, again in imitation of China’s iron-fisted approach to Hongkong’s pro-democracy movement, is to clamp down on anyone who makes noises on what is wrong. 

Already, DILG employees have been warned to refrain from posting criticism against the terror bill. The likes of Senator Tito Sotto downplay the dangers raised by concerned citizens by saying that only terrorists need fear. Well, experience shows that if you speak out and you happen to be a conscientious civil servant you are in danger of being gagged or of losing your job. You can get thrown into jail simply for saying Duterte is buang – Visayan for “crazy.” (READ: Salesman arrested, jailed for calling Duterte ‘crazy’

Sociology tells us that there has to be plausibility structures in place if the supposed safeguards in the bill are to work. Unfortunately, the apparatus of power under this regime is such that when you see the police, you freeze in terror, unlike in other places like the UK where the sight of a policeman makes you feel safe when walking at night. Ask the families of the more than 20,000 victims of extrajudicial killings what law enforcement means to them.

Running under the curses and the rambling incoherence of the President’s speeches is the subtext that “everything is permitted,” a signal to his minions that they can do anything to our hapless citizens for as long as it serves his will and ends. Like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, he has arrogated the idea that he is a law unto himself, above and beyond the usual limits of legal and moral constraints. 

This is the real terror that we are facing. The instrumentalities of the state – Congress, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the police, and all who, like automatons, are willing tools of this despot – are all going to be turned against us in the event that we differ in our definition of terror.        

What we are experiencing now is not just a creeping authoritarianism. We are seeing the apotheosis of Duterte and the state, demanding unquestioning obedience and loyalty. It is a wonder why even in our churches, people bow in worship of this sick man who pretends to have the strength of arm to wipe out what he deems to be evil in this society. 

We may not be aware of it, but we are moving towards the kind of totalitarian hegemony being exercised by the Chinese Communist Party over its citizens. It is a supreme irony that Filipinos suspected of being “communist” are being hounded and hunted down, while communists from Mainland China are being invited to tutor the Senate, most likely on how to lock down and fence us all in for effective social control. (READ: Military report confirms spying risks in deal with China-backed telco)

This lockdown is most likely a rehearsal for the future. We have been sedated and demobilized, perhaps out of proportion to the threat of the coronavirus. Slowly, the noose is being tightened round our necks. The body politic is being strangled and tortured by “a thousand cuts,” as described by Maria Ressa. There is red-tagging, all these small, swift arrests done in the name of “national security,” usually out of public view. But sometimes the iron claws surface, like the unprecedented expulsion of the Supreme Court Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, and now the guilty verdict against Maria Ressa, a frail yet sturdy symbol of the power of truth in a time when fake news seems to have overrun our media-saturated social environment.     

Like in the Marcos years, this country is beginning to feel once again like the land conjured by the novelist Franz Kafka. You get a knock on the door at night and get locked behind bars with no idea of the why and wherefore, and there is no one in authority to address yourself to. Anonymous powers then called it  “preventive detention,” which could last for years, or else you disappear. 

To my ageing generation who experienced those years, let us wake up from our stupor and “gird up our loins,” as the Bible says, and fight with whatever remaining strength we have the gathering darkness that once again shrouds our land. –

Melba Padilla Maggay is President of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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