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Duterte and the Road to Hell

While the “Million March” for Rodrigo Duterte fizzled out and failed to convince the Davao City Mayor to run for president, his grassroots campaign online is still hoping for him to change his mind.

For a politician who has repeatedly shot down any speculation of a presidential campaign, Duterte’s pseudo-campaign sure is a strange one. It is even stranger that his supporters go so far as to say that Duterte is “morally obligated” to run. We are led to wonder, what other moral obligations does Duterte have?

Duterte’s claim to fame is that he “cleaned up” Davao City, which was once a cesspool of crime. Purportedly, Davao has become safe due to the strict enforcement of the law. One popular story was that the mayor himself would patrol the city in a taxi, striking fear in the hearts of evildoers.

But, in more candid conversations, people attribute the safety of Davao to the Davao Death Squads. The vigilante group has been credited with hundreds of extra-judicial killings. Answering allegations of his ties to the group, Duterte himself confirms it, saying, “They say I am the death squad? True, that is true.”  He also said that 1,000 deaths under his command would be a “cheap” estimate.

Though his supporters have dismissed any such admission from Duterte as him ‘joking,’ Duterte has, at the very least, condoned extra-judicial killings as a method of combatting crime, saying, “Summary execution of criminals remains the most effective way to crush kidnapping and illegal drugs.”


If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Also, don’t be poor.

Today, Davao claims to be among the safest cities in the world, all the while sweeping hundreds of unsolved murders under the rug. It sure helps a city’s crime stats to ignore one whole category of crime: extra-judicial killings.

Duterte supporters see death squad victims as riffraff who deserved to be executed. I’ve been in exchanges with supporters who say that death squad victims had already been convicted in a court of law. But they had been released. The death squads only ever kill criminals, so only criminals should worry! And since they went back to a life of crime, it was only right to have them executed. Supporters fail to realize that even if they were tried and convicted, they were never sentenced to death, since capital punishment has been suspended in the Philippines.

Advocates of death squads have bought into the short-sighted idea that criminality is always simply a failure of character, rather than the result of a complex and systemic problem involving socioeconomic pressures outside of a person’s control. Restorative justice recognizes this fact. And yet, Duterte himself mocked the New York-based Human Rights Watch because “They want to rehabilitate instead of just killing the idiots.” He also said that rehabilitation is an idea imported from the West and is rooted in being “soft.”

It has been easy to write off death squad victims. They’re mostly poor. They’d been largely invisible to the Internet tough guys who have been advocating for their deaths. What hasn’t been easy is to see them as victims— victims of a failed war on drugs and victims of failed socioeconomic policies. After all, nobody grows up wanting to be a drug dealer or a rice smuggler. It’s hard to see all this when when we’ve never seen our own hunger as an existential threat.

Even under the threat of death squads, these people went into a life of crime because our society prevented them from finding stable opportunities to earn a living wage. That’s how bad it is out there right now. It should say a lot about Davao and the Philippines that people are risking being murdered because they can’t earn a decent living.

And so, Duterte supporters are sated by the blood of poor victims, including children, who are hardly to blame for the systemic rot of Philippine society. We never hear about elites being murdered in cold blood for bad labor practices or anti-competitive behavior.


The Philippines is magic bullet-proof

Duterte has been made up to be the messiah the Philippines needs. All we need is discipline, his supporters claim. If everybody just followed the rules, we’d all be better off! And here we have an icon dripping in machismo to make sure we’re all on our best behavior.

It would be nice to live in such a comic book fantasy where killing all the bad people solves everything. It’s not surprising that people who see the world in such black-and-white terms of good and evil also support solving things with magic bullets. (And I do mean bullets.)

But, let us accept this premise. Let’s believe that Duterte would be a benevolent dictator—that he would only use his powers for good. After all, it worked for Singapore. Why wouldn’t it work for the Philippines?

Then, let’s also ignore the fact that Lee Kuan Yew never advocated for extra-judicial killings and that Singapore is a city-state with half the population of Metro Manila.

The benevolent dictator theory does not work because of one little problem: people die. Even if Duterte had the omniscience and benevolence he is believed to have, he will leave office someday. Even if he extends his presidency indefinitely, he will eventually leave behind all the additional power his supporters want to grant him: the power to rule while ignoring human rights. Duterte’s successor will have license to act as Duterte did. Then, where would we be? (And some supporters want that successor to be Bongbong Marcos.)


The road to hell

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and Duterte supporters seem to have nothing but good intentions. They have grown tired of watching others cheat the system and get rewarded for it. They just want everyone to play by the rules. They want to see a Philippines where nice guys don’t always finish last.

These are ideals many Duterte critics must share, too. Life in the Philippines is unending frustration. But the solution is not in enforcing discipline under the gun, but in adjusting incentives. If following the rules rewards rule breakers, we have to change the rules, not break them ourselves.

We are never going to intimidate the Philippines into becoming a prosperous nation. The time has passed when empires could be built by people who kept their head down for fear of looking at the king the wrong way. We, as a people, have to freely decide that we want the country to be a better place. We can’t just hand off this responsibility to one man, however many guns he poses with.

A Filipino tourist was once caught smoking in Davao, where smoking is illegal, and Duterte forced him to eat his cigarette. Witnesses say that Duterte also told the tourist never to challenge the law. And yet, isn’t it also illegal to force anybody to eat anything against their will?

Duterte is a man of contradiction. He claims to enforce lawfulness, all the while endorsing unlawful vigilantism (if we believe that he isn’t outright complicit). It is exactly this kind of thinking— taking shortcuts and defying the rules—that led us to where we are now. He is more of the same thing, just louder and angrier.

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