Early 2015. I and my co-editor Alma Anonas-Carpio flew to Davao City to meet the mayor, Rodrigo Roa Duterte. Venue: The posh Marco Polo Hotel.
As former editor-in-chief of a political and literary magazine, I had come across his name a couple of times during conversations with fellow journalists. However, it never stuck.
I practically arrived in Davao empty-handed. All I had were rumors that he turned Davao into a first-rate city complete with state-of-the-art technology. A better rumor was that he might decide to run for the 2016 presidential race against the backdrop that he allegedly ordered the murder of Jun Pala, a journalist, who once ran against him. I had to hear it for myself.
The interview was logged for 9pm. Inside the hotel, we saw Duterte conducting a press conference for the Davao media. Alma and I bided our time, patiently waiting in the sidelines. I even remember picking up a surprising quote from the mayor and posting in on my Facebook account with his photo: “Democracy is the right to dissent”. I remember glancing smugly at Alma, thinking: “Too good to be true?”
Little did we know that we had to stare at the ceiling for the next two-to-three hours before he met us for the exclusive.
To cut to the chase, the interview, which started way past midnight, went better than expected. I was told prior to the meeting that the mayor was naturally crass, undisguised and sometimes course in his statements. One journalist I had the pleasure of meeting said that it was Duterte’s way of showing “sincerity,” being no other than himself. “But in truth, he is soft-spoken in person,” the journalist quickly added.
During the interview, I lost no time hurling tough questions: his alleged association with the so-called Davao Death Squad; the Jun Pala allegations; his plans to strip the bureaucracy of corruption; his move to rid the military of rogue and corrupt officers; about his widely circulated animosity towards drug users and peddlers; his being a friend to communist rebels (a relationship which has deteriorated in the last four years); and his plans for the presidency should he run and win, among others.
On the matter of corrupt officials, drug dependents, and anyone who gets in his way, he simply said with the calmness of summer showers that he’d shoot them all. And that with the honesty of a lightning flash.
This may seem disturbing to many, myself included. But I have to admit, it didn’t come off as unsettling than it first sounded. While I felt his anger was real, Duterte offered the answers in the calmest way possible. Not once did he raise his voice. These outright threats, deranged though they may seem in hindsight, seemingly came with the stench of humility in it — “stench” because I had suspected right then and there that the same was all for show.
It was arresting, to say the least, almost to the point of sounding compassionate, genuine, or, God help us, holy and virtuous. The tone of voice, the overall demeanor, the body language, took the form of some kind of biblical righteousness, like he was God’s sword on Earth, sharpened to cut down all who would get in his way of safeguarding the national conscience.
I would’ve fallen for the lie had it not been for the decades I’ve spent interviewing make-believe prophets of peace and order.
Do understand that the thought alone of what some of these addicts are capable of doing makes me want to propose a return to biblical stoning. Long ago, I wrote a story about an eight-month-old baby gang raped by addicts and left for dead inside a chicken coop heated to Fahrenheit 451 by rusty galvanized iron. I almost never made it to the deadline because of my rage.
For a second there, Duterte’s promise of cleansing society’s underbelly came with the soothing effects of the very hallucinogens he purportedly hates. He preyed on people’s natural hatred of heinous acts, which are often associated with illegal drugs.
I had to swiftly and consciously push against the Kraken inside me and remind myself that we are a nation ruled by laws, due process and the Bill of Rights.
Months later, in July 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines. Four years into his term, tens of thousands of Filipinos, suspected of drug peddling and addiction, without the slightest proof of guilt, mostly the poorest of the poor, had been murdered.
Alleged drug lords were set free.
During a book launch of a National Artist at the University of the Philippines’ Vargas Hall last year, I was asked by a fellow author, “What makes Duterte tick? Why are many Filipinos loyal to him despite all the horrors that had happened under his watch?”
I thought long and hard for an answer. I said, after decades and years of being fooled and lied to by government, Filipinos, it seems, would give everything — both legs and hands, if necessary, perhaps even their own necks — just to have a President who is “sincere”. Regardless if such sincerity is predicated on the experience of violence, murder, even massive corruption, and the wanton and gratuitous improvisation of, and disregard for, our laws.
To many, the system is broke and the only way to get ahead of criminals — both in government and along dark alleyways — is to deal with them through extrajudicial means. Even our movies are swamped by story plots about the vigilante-hero out to save the day — to hell with the law. Filipinos are so sick and tired of liars, of people who manipulate the system, that they’d sell their children and their children’s future if only for a semblance of this sincerity.
The really disturbing part is that they equate this show of sincerity with political will.
Political will, to them, means doing whatever it takes, regardless if it swings counter to our laws, to stop evil elements once and for all.
If we take our cue from advertising gurus, sincerity makes for good copy. A famous product endorser subscribing to a product no one has ever tried banks not only on celebrity status, but celebrity status as a trustee of the endorser’s good faith. It is always assumed that no one can reach such heights of fame without some integrity — integrity, meaning, honest, sincere, with some solid integrity to boot. We all know this is hardly the case for many, if not all famous people.
And Duterte, for all that he is criticized for this crassness, his profanities, more so his thirst for death and violence, displays the kind of sincerity which, in the eyes of his diehard disciples, exonerates him of his crimes.
It is safe to say that Duterte is the product of the malversation of good faith, the deliberate misappropriation of political promise. This cuts across all administrations. He is the result of decades of public trust forced to walk the plank and pushed overboard, left to drown in a sea of forgetting.
Knowing this as one of many things that are holding us back, Duterte responded by cloaking vengeance with virtue.
However, in this day and age of systematic lies, revisionism, and alt-truth, sincerity and political will are foisted as a contradiction in terms. Sincerity, or speaking from the heart, yet emptied of time-tested principles and facts, ceases to be a virtue.
French-Algerian novelist and journalist Albert Camus explains this quite well in his essay “The New Meaning of Revolution” published in the Combat newspaper on Nov. 23, 1946:
Yet sincerity itself is not a virtue. There are times when sincerity is so confused that it is worse than lies. The problem of our day is not how to speak from the heart, but how to think clearly.
In short, any one of us can be sincerely wrong. And while honest mistakes can hardly be considered a heinous crime, there are mistakes, deliberately made to appear honest and innocent, which cannot be undone.
In the case of political will, achievements in this area must be built on laws which make the political possible and recognizable, if it were to be true to its nature. Anything shy of intelligent thought when exercising political will is mere excuse to manipulate. No amount of sincerity, however heartfelt yet mistaken, can replace the benefits of thinking clearly.
The tens of thousands of lives which have been snuffed in the name of a bogus drug war cannot be resurrected. Nor would apologies, unfeigned though they may be, would suffice.
Justice requires recompense. But recompense, devoid of the knowledge if one is guilty or not, is simply meting out punishment for sport, or worse, for someone’s sick satisfaction.
Sincerity is the oldest, surest currency of all dictatorships to fool a gullible citizenry. Hitler used it, so did Benito Mussolini, Nicolae Ceaușescu, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, and all the other despots living or dead.
Tyrants milk this for all it’s worth until history catches them in lie after lie after lie after lie. Only then are they exposed as the exact facsimiles of those they say they wish to depose.