Six months after the election of Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte as President of the Philippines, the country remains divided as to whether this represents a new era in Philippine politics or the country’s tragic downfall.
Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, the tragic loss of life caused by his “war on drugs” cannot be overshadowed by Duterte’s progressive ambitions, many of which have been praised by Filipino society. But the right to life must always be respected, even for those considered undesirable.
Since Duterte gained power, it is estimated that 6,000 people have been murdered. The most dangerous aspect of these murders is the dangerous philosophy behind it. Under the banner of ending the country’s endemic drug problem, Duterte has led a brutal campaign targeting anybody with a relation to drugs, whether a long-time dealer or a one-time user. He made it his mission to remove these bad elements of society at any cost, even encouraging society to take part in the mass killings.
The loss of life, according to many Filipinos, is a justifiable means if it results in ending the drug-related problems society has faced for decades. It is much more than murder, however, for the campaign led by Duterte has dehumanized much of the population.
Critics say the drug problem facing the Philippines has been exaggerated by Duterte to justify his campaign. If one is to believe the government, there are 4 million drug addicts in the Philippines. But according to a 2015 study by the Dangerous Drugs Board, a Philippine government agency, the prevalence rate of current drugs users among Filipinos 10-69 years is 2.3 percent (1.8 million people). Marijuana users comprise 72.3 percent of total drug users, whereas Shabu users make up 48.9 percent (the overlap is because some use both). Duterte has evidently ignored the facts provided by his own government to propel society into action.
The problem with Duterte is thus that his determination to rid society of a threat that remains unclear. The obvious disregard for human life is a dangerous precedent for all of society and should not be ignored. Duterte claims to be targeting those involved with illegal drugs, but as a result poor urban dwellers have been the prime targets of the executions. Carried out to its extreme, Duterte apparently would execute all 1.8 million current drug users, an ambition so twisted as to be grotesque.
Even working under the unlikely assumption that all those targeted were involved with drugs, Duterte has taken a singular aspect of human life and justified execution on such grounds. There are no longer human beings who have dealt or used drugs, only “drug-dealers” and “drug-users.” Through dehumanizing this group of people, Duterte has been able to justify to society the necessity of weeding them out of everyday life.
In a historical parallel, the same method has been used during a number of genocides from across the world. Judaism, a religion, became an all-encompassing aspect of victims’ lives during the Holocaust. Human beings began to be referred to as “Jews,” a derogatory term at the time that dehumanized the country’s Jewish population. This process of dehumanization enabled genocide as society either participated or stood by. A similar process happened in Rwanda, Hutus beginning to refer to Tutsis as cockroaches, resulting in 800,000 dead.
In the same way, today we witness human beings who have dealt or used drugs being removed from Filipino society after no longer being considered human beings worthy of life. The parallel between the victims of these atrocities remains starkly different, but the method of the guilty remains grossly similar.
Duterte has his own ideas for the future of the Philippines, in the same way that Adolf Hitler had his own ideas for the future of Germany. To change society, the exclusion of certain people becomes necessary for such a process to take place in the eyes of despots. It is part of the process of modernity, where society strives to create the best version of itself through excluding minority groups.
Victims were rendered unable to change an aspect of their identity to become model citizens of the new society being created. As many of those who converted from Judaism failed to be spared, many Filipinos too poor to seek rehabilitation are denied a place in the country’s future. Duterte’s idealism is not the problem, but rather the way that murder is the only way he believes he can achieve this vision.
A further product of modernity is the division of labor, allowing society to blindly take part in mass murder. During the Holocaust, murder became a job. Everybody played their part: the train driver, the engineer, and the gunman. It wasn’t murder, it was work, or so they say. Across the Philippines people are willfully choosing to become a part of the system, denouncing neighbors and forming vigilante groups that participate in murder. In such a process, even those guilty of committing murder become dehumanized, merely becoming a clog in the machinery of mass murder.
Another worrying aspect is Duterte calling upon society to act upon his rhetoric, encouraging Filipinos to take part in the killings. During an election celebration in Davao City, he called upon armed citizens to “[d]o it yourself if you have guns, you have my support.” People are also able to rid themselves of any guilt or responsibility by claiming superior orders. After all, the government not only allows citizens to kill suspected drug dealers or users, but encourages it. During the Holocaust, even those in charge of administering gas chambers tried to absolve themselves of responsibility by claiming they were merely following the orders of a multilayered bureaucracy.
The average person found solace in such backward thinking, and many Nazi-criminals argued along similar lines upon trial in the aftermath. Adolf Hitler, Hans Frank or Adolf Eichmann may have made the orders, but society followed them through. This explains why the death rate in the Philippines continues to rise, society has been lead to believe that the government has the right to carry out such executions and it’s their duty to assist. People effectively dehumanize themselves through giving up their agency.
Through attempting to fix a societal ill, Duterte has resorted to methods that place him on a long list of mass murderers. Framing the campaign with a historical lens allows us to realize the dangerous precedent it sets for the future of the Philippines. Society may be easily convinced that violence is the best way forward, but this brutal campaign will become an atrocity few remember fondly. As in other historical episodes of violence, society gets caught up in the moment with an idealistic vision of the future, only to regret the atrocities in hindsight.
From Germany to Rwanda, society becomes irreversibly damaged through allowing violence to become the norm. With the rise of the Duterte, the Philippines is likely to become yet another country afraid of its past.
Matthew Abbey is a freelance journalist and political analyst based in Australia.