It is easy to miss the cost of scaling back the magnitude of the martial law period in the Philippines and the roles of the iconic figures who cleared the way for it. Filipinos have so developed a taste for remaining moot at the farthest end of the accounting of history, the end farthest from the past, that they have jettisoned much of the significance of martial law.
There are disconcerting numbers of Filipinos who are reluctant to tackle the past and who are more concerned about how they will confront the future. That these Filipinos have “larger” things to worry about than the shoulder-deep reflections on martial law goes a long way in explaining the ambivalence that has spoiled their accompanying zeitgeist. For them, the martial law experience does not cause much alarm or suspicion of it falling upon the Philippines again.
Indeed, it has been quite disappointing to see Filipinos distracted from what was the institutionalization of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, and from how it was callously structured around theoretical depictions of social foundation and normalization.
To be sure, discerning and conscientious Filipinos have rendered the cautionary tale of martial law as drawn from a society that never wanted to forget what it was supposed to bring to the table of democracy in its corner of the world.
Filipinos though have little patience for the past. They keep up the appearances of speaking to the past, of communing with it. However, Filipinos under this cover, to source a postmodernist’s response, “devour its absence”. When are Filipinos going to realize that their democracy was not exactly created equal with others, that this precarious state would cast the country forward into the shadow of something as barren of righteousness and freedom as Marcos’s one-man rule?
It was more than forty years ago that a gambit butchered Filipinos’ sunlit democracy and splintered it into the cavernous depths of a dictatorship. The Philippines contracted then as its moral and democratic circumference became no longer possible to ascertain. How easy it has been for Filipinos to move on without fully absorbing that well-chronicled history.
A lot has been said and written about martial law and how it dehumanized everyday life in the Philippines. This is telling because it allows one to plead the case that the memory of martial law has not been prima facie left by Filipinos to twist in the wind, that the remembrance of it by Filipinos of all stripes has not entirely abated thanks to the flowing pens and fearless voices of writers, artists, thinkers, and dissident activists who defied the regime.
Cradled however in a broad, mesmerizing ideal— a modern ideal that estranges them from yesterday and raises expectations of something better over the horizon— Filipinos to a large extent rarely pause to make out the contempt that the illustrious cast of the martial law initiative continue to have for their rights and liberties.
After freedom reigned again in the Philippines, Filipinos descended into complacency and instead of leading them to repent, allowed the villains of martial law to receive the political and economic rewards of evading punishment for their crimes. Now as a result, many of the martial law perpetrators are in positions of power today, putting their political successors up to the same machinations that filled their own careers with ulterior intent.
That the memory of martial law hasn’t inextricably lodged itself into the minds of Filipinos has less to do perhaps with shutting down an unguarded, sobering view of a traumatic myth of balance and order than it does with Filipinos afraid of having to, as Nietzsche held, stare into the abyss because it would stare back. Maybe Filipinos should stare into the historical abyss of martial law more often so that they won’t have any reason to be caught unawares when it rears its head once again.