Duterte kills 3 – so what?

Whether he has killed 3 or 3 million or 4, it doesn’t matter for now, his lawyers say: he is beyond the reach of the law while he’s president.

President Duterte’s all-too-casual public admission that he himself, by his own hand, has killed three people takes impunity to an entirely new height. Killing is his regime’s first order of business, after all.

Indeed, nearly nothing is heard from him, say, about poverty or jobs or education or social welfare, only about crime and what to him is its primary root cause – drugs. His war on drugs has left more than 6,000 dead, with days left yet before he completes the first six months of his six-year term; and he has promised that his war would not slacken for Christmas.

“Our children must be protected from drugs,” he says, again and again, sometimes brandishing a directory of drug dealers supposedly that rivals the phonebook in heft. Then, he gets back at his critics who warn him about going around the law with summary executions. “They just don’t get it,” he says, cursing their “whore-mothers” under his breath.

Among his most consistent and pressing critics are the American government and the United Nations. In its latest reprisal, the US withheld US$400 million in aid. And recently the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR), Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has joined in, reacting to Duterte’s own kills, all three notched up early in his more than two decades as mayor of his native Davao City, before he became president.

Duterte said he wanted “to show the guys,” meaning his henchmen, that he was up to the task himself. Declaring that the killings “constitute murder,” Zeid has called on the Philippine judiciary to probe and prosecute.

But Duterte’s admission may be too general to be in itself actionable, and his belated addition of one piece of detail should prove only convenient for him: his targets chose to shoot it out – the local term, a standard citation in policemen’s accounts of their own kills, is nanlaban. Still, his admission lends credibility to a testimony given at a senate inquiry implicating him as the gunman himself in one case – not necessarily one of the three he admitted to.

And coming as it does from a confessed former hit man for him, the testimony should acquire added weight. (Edgar Matobato, the whistleblower, is a marked man in hiding, but he’s not going away.)

At any rate, Duterte’s public-relations men are quick to rally around him with reflex rationalizations whenever he comes under siege: he has been “misunderstood”, “taken out of context”, “merely speaking in hyperbole”.

I thought I understood Duterte well enough myself and that, if anyone did not understand him, it was he himself. Or else he did not need to be explained by his own men, who in fact tried to straighten me out at a television forum, where I found myself being lectured on hyperbole, a point lost on me, I did confess, as it applied to Duterte.

“Hyperbole,” begins Pompee La Viña, commander of the cyberspace force for Duterte, as I understand his special role, “is a figure of speech… Example: a mother tells her son, ‘I will kill you,’ and the boy lives — that’s hyperbole.”

“But then,” I reply, following his hyperbolic logic, “Duterte says, ‘I will kill you,’ and two thousand die.”

I still don’t know where hyperbole begins and ends with Duterte, who, comparing himself with Hitler, the great Jew slaughterer himself, once declared he “will be happy to slaughter” all three million of the nation’s drug dealers and addicts (he has since updated his count, which looks arbitrary in the absence of any independent bases, to four million – if he’s chasing Hitler’s record he has to find a couple of thousands more).

Anyway, whether he has killed three or three million or four, it doesn’t matter for now, his lawyers say: he is beyond the reach of the law while he’s president. If their word indeed ends all arguments, Duterte will continue to enjoy five and a half years more of immunity.

In the meantime, his example lives, and people continue dying around him./–Vergel Santos/Rappler.com


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