President Rodrigo Duterte’s extrajudicial killings (EJK) of drug dealers and addicts are becoming an emotionally-charged undertaking but not necessarily for the reasons many think. Supporters of Duterte’s explicitly violent anti-drug campaign focus on how savagely effective it has been in ostensibly emancipating Philippine society from the scourge of the illegal drug industry. It must be a highly emotional thing for Filipinos to think that they have finally begun retiring drug crime to the ash heap of history.
Except that this conclusion is as fallacious as it is contemptible. But I will get back to the contemptible aspect of it later. I first want to tackle the notion that the EJK killings—which are tantamount to “act(s) of terrorism” according to James Fenton of the New York Review of Books—are in no small part an emotionally-charged phenomena, a phenomena that is running both political cover and interference for Rodrigo Duterte as he boastfully plays the role of the merciless, take-no-prisoners president.
It’s not hard to see why so many Filipinos have turned a blind eye towards the cruelty and illegality of the drug killings. On the surface, the killings appear to have dealt a severe blow to the illegal drug industry. Duterte supporters point to the growing absence of drug dealers and users on the streets. Those same dealers and users used to be able to conduct their illicit business and behavior on the streets with impunity. The Duterte faithful have presumed that—on the basis of that observable absence along with the all too familiar scenes of dead bodies sprawled out for all to see—the drug dealers and users have been permanently dissuaded from practicing their dark trade and from feeding their addictions.
Nothing could be farther from reality. The absence can be explained by the likelihood that the drug dealers and users have simply gone underground. More and more, dealers and users are avoiding the murderous police forces and vigilantes by going behind closed doors and engaging in other forms of concealment, thereby becoming invisible to the extent where people think they have been put out of commission for good. This is the bogus line that Duterte is trying to push onto Filipinos. It is folly to believe that the killings, as pitiless as they are, have persuaded drug pushers and users to suddenly stop on a dime what they have been doing for so long. It goes without saying that just because you cannot see something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Like with terrorism, you cannot eradicate or even diminish the drug trade solely by the barrel of a gun no matter how high you ratchet up the body count.
Drug usage and distribution are symptoms not causes. While not the lone cause, extreme poverty has long been associated with the prevalence of drugs in a society and for good reason. Anyone living an impoverished existence as millions of Filipinos do will desperately seek some kind of escape, however temporary, from that harsh reality. Drugs provide such an escape for those unfortunate souls. The undeniable fact that Duterte has concentrated his drug war primarily on the easiest targets—the lower classes—only adds salt to the wound.
This is not to justify drug trafficking or consumption in any way. But Duterte’s unwillingness to comprehend and address the roots of drug crime and abuse—and instead pursue a disproportionate, short-sighted policy that principally targets the manifestations of the drug trade rather than its cardinal underpinnings—is the product of a grievously unaccountable, undemocratic, and distressingly facile strategy. Its repercussions lead to greater human suffering, something the Philippines doesn’t need any more of.
Right up to the latest drop of blood spilled as a result of his pigheaded crusade, it is in Rodrigo Duterte’s political interests to keep the spotlight on his war against the drug trade. That is why I wrote above that there is something contemptible about Duterte’s anti-drug campaign other than the carnage that it has generated. That there is something contemptible with Duterte’s campaign shouldn’t be so surprising as murder and politics have intersected each other more than once in his controversial past.
For one thing, the president is far too clever not to know that sending drug dealers and users to meet their maker is not a deterrent. For Duterte, the drug killings are the means to a more expedient end. He is using his drug war as a cover for his private lack of confidence about being able to implement far-reaching socio-economic reform, long overdue reform that would necessitate major poverty alleviation programs for the benefit of the lower classes.
Why would Duterte be uneasy about effectuating fundamental anti-poverty initiatives, "fundamental" being the key word here? Drastically improving the lives of the masses was after all, a primary theme of his presidential campaign. He is reluctant because he perceives that anti-poverty initiatives—initiatives that should begin to take on the Philippines’ socio-economic structural deficiencies—will be too difficult to engender in a top-heavy, highly stratified society in which an elite class essentially monopolizes the country’s financial and natural resources. The entrenched Philippine elite would almost certainly oppose progressive reform initiatives that could threaten their historical dominance.
In making a cold political calculation, Duterte has determined that the bringing about of game changing anti-poverty initiatives is not worth the large expenditures of time, energy, and political capital that would be required to counterbalance the economic and political elite. Based on his actions or lack thereof, to say that Duterte’s bark is worse than his bite when it comes to the entrenched elite is no exaggeration.
Accordingly, Duterte needs his illegitimate drug war to conceal his political cowardice in doing what is best in the long run for the Filipino people. Duterte is utilizing a tried-and-tested strategy of mass distraction for as long as he can get away with it. The tragedy of it all is that according to Amnesty International, more than a thousand people are being killed every month under the aegis of Rodrigo Duterte’s homicidal anti-drug push. Overall, some 7,000 have been dispatched since its inception, the vast majority of them having been denied due process of law.
There’s no use running away from these disturbing numbers. They lie at the heart of Rodrigo Duterte’s hellish version of peace and order and his Machiavellian leadership. It remains unknown how long the Philippines can continue on this treacherous path. That is to say, when will the powerless stop paying for the sins and ambitions of Rodrigo Duterte?