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Who will guard the guardians?

That is the classic question that spurred all of political theorizing. All the theorizing produced the modern state, with its complex array of laws, layers of institutions and redundant agencies tasked with oversight functions.

The modern state is supposed to ensure that societies are predictably ruled by impersonal laws rather than ruled whimsically by men. The capacity of states to be governed by laws instead of men becomes the measure of its civility.

Political society, after all, was considered necessary ultimately to protect its citizens. In a condition of anarchy, characterized by the absence of rule, each citizen looks after his own protection. In such a condition, to quote the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life will be “brutish and short.” The stronger will subdue the weak, the armed will abuse the unarmed.

In our case, at this time, the classic question might be better phrased: Who will police the police?

After a string of killings victimizing boys in their teens, the rule of law in our society does seem badly frayed. By nearly every indication, these boys were killed by policemen. Whether or not they were involved in crime is of no consequence. What is important is that they appear to have been summarily executed, at least two of them apparently tortured before they were finished off.

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In and of themselves, these killings are outrageous. Even more disturbing, these killings seem part of a larger pattern of extra-judicial executions undertaken by men who are supposed to enforce the rule of law.

The human rights violations that accompany these killings are only part of the matter that disturbs all of us. In a larger sense, the killings tell us that the rule of law is eroding by the day. We are quickly turning into a community fearful of those whose role is precisely to protect citizens.

The situation has so deteriorated, it is no longer a question of who will guard the guardians. The more exact question is: who will protect us against the guardians?

If the guardians cannot be relied upon to uphold the rule of law, society is defenseless. Personal security becomes uncertain. We will all be condemned to live in fear.

For years, the word in the streets was that anyone victimized by burglary or other such crimes can buy instant justice from the police. For a sum covering operations costs and some compensation for the risks, there are vigilantes who will terminate the wrongdoer. The complainant will be shown a picture of the dead wrongdoer to settle the deal.

Extra-judicial killings have been with us for many years. Victims of criminal acts did not seem to mind how justice was exacted as long as the criminals took the penalties for their crimes. Court procedures were exasperating and criminals often buy themselves off the hook, to threaten the victims once more.

Extra-judicial killings compensated for all the weaknesses of our justice system: the corruption of the police and the courts. It was tolerated, most of all by the victims. It was an open secret that, for a fee, justice could be won – except that we have to pay to ensure crime does not pay.

As in all other things, the poor got the shorter end of the stick. They were more prone to commit crimes against property. The wealthier had the means to contract out vigilantes to mete the penalties.

Somewhere along the way, all the killings were simply tolerated. Men with guns, a motorcycle and a willingness to do dastardly things made extra-judicial killings, contract exterminations and vigilante justice a daily event. For a fee, even the slightest personal grudges end up in murder.

A couple of years back, in the course of a casual chat, a city mayor told me that in one particularly blighted barangay, they had identified 180 assassins. He did not seem as alarmed as I was of that piece of trivia he was sharing. That seems to suggest the number of men willing to kill for a fee, following the law of supply and demand, should made assassinations fairly affordable.

The so-called “war on drugs” put the spotlight on extra-judicial killings not necessarily because they were more frequent, but because they were simply more blatant. A certain degree of sloppiness came to characterize the killings, mainly because they are conducted with such impunity.

The killing of Kian de los Santos is iconic. It illustrated the degree to which sloppiness and impunity combined to produce an outrageous scandal.

Administration critics attribute the growing impunity to President Duterte no less. His language appears to encourage killers to do their thing. His assurances that policemen who find themselves in conflict with the law in pursuing the “war on drugs” will have his protection.

Duterte’s words seem to echo those of that American general who wanted to reduce all of Samar island to a “howling wilderness.” He supposedly told his men: “The more you kill, the more you will please me.”

But even if the President’s words did sound wayward, there should have been enough institutional checks to prevent those words from materializing into an orgy of murder. Those checks did not seem to be working.

After that spate of killings of teenagers, Duterte noticeably tried to dial back his words. Last week, he even allowed himself to repeat that lame excuse that the killings of teenagers were part of a partisan plot.

But the effectiveness of the institutions looking after the protection of citizens should not be dependent on the “tone at the top.”

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