EDITORIAL: We are a nation obsessed with death
THE DOWNBEAT - DLS Pineda (The Philippine Star) - March 11, 2017 - 12:00am

All things considered, there is only one argument that’s worth entertaining in pushing for the death penalty — personal retribution.

It’s been proven all over the world, in different periods of our civilized existence, that the death penalty does not deter crime. In fact, in poverty-stricken countries, it’s more likely that crime rates continue to increase even with the death penalty on the table. It’s also been noted that it is discriminatory; death is partial to the poor. No big-named criminal has ever been the electric chair’s guest, hanged or beheaded by states ironically opposed to terrorists, or been injected with potassium chloride. In its fine print, the death penalty says that only the poor deserve to die. In our malformed justice system, the moneyed can hire competent lawyers, elevate their cases to higher and higher courts, and receive relaxed sentences or get off scot-free. It is obvious that the in-betweens of the death penalty only breed hypocrisy. Try as its proponents might, their red-necked ideas have long been rebutted and rebuked by statistics, by sociology, and all other things rational.

But as an argument for the death penalty, personal retribution — as raw and as primitive as the idea may be — remains very much alive. No matter how hard one tries, one can never win the debate against a father of a murdered rape victim or a scornful family, scarred by the experience of dealing with a heroin junkie mother. Our untamable need for revenge has only been purged by the examples of a very few people — the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ. So in the Philippines, where old devils tend to win elections and usher in hell here on earth, we Filipinos remain charmed by death’s glamour.

We have always been so obsessed with death. Noynoy Aquino won when he invoked the memory of his dead parents; our heroes, from Lapu-Lapu to Gomburza and Rizal, are proclaimed for their ways of dying; the manunggul burial jar was once shown on the P1,000 bill. We measure the intensity of storms with the number of lives they take — Yolanda took 6,340, Ondoy took 464. We measure the success/absurdity of the “War on Drugs” by its death toll, now more than 7,080; people applaud the President each time he mentions killing a drug lord; soap operas always have someone close to dying; our National Anthem ends with “ang mamatay nang dahil sa ‘yo.” In this country where you’re either rich or poor, maputi or maitim, a dilawan or a Dutertard, Muslim or Catholic, you’re also either dead or alive.

Comfort in Death

Perhaps conditions here are so dire and so fruitless that it is only when we witness death that many find comfort. Comfort in seeing the reprieve that death grants the dead, perhaps; or, being the merry spirits we are, comfort by schadenfreude. Or perhaps we are simply taught to think simply in black or white, with no nuance at any point in between; right ear, left ear and no brain in the middle. It seems that death is not only a spectacle for Filipinos but a kind of taboo rocket science — untouchable, mystical, mind-blowing and anonymous — and our only recourse is to avoid understanding it so as to continue romanticizing it. And so, as they are wont to do, members of Congress turned death into a law when it has already been a law since the beginning of time. Maybe the only law we are all beholden to.

By its very nature, this is a case of over-legislation wherein the law tries to take into its own hands what it can’t and shouldn’t. Like legislating how many storms should enter the country every year, it is simply dumb. Death, whether we like it or not, will come anyway. But what gives credence to the death penalty is its political face: a tool for social control, which has been, of course, proven as a farce. Can we be so powerful that we attach a leash to death, and declare who lives and who dies? No. Can we control how people should perceive these deaths? Also no.

Brazenly Political Moves

Congress’s vote for the death penalty can only make sense if seen as a brazenly political move. Representatives have come out on their Facebook accounts with explanations as to how and why they voted the way they did and the best surprises were from Representatives Arroyo and Marcos, and co-author of the Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB), Rep. Geraldine Roman. While ex-President Arroyo has always been against the death penalty, it is ironic that the dictator’s widow should also be against it when death was the Marcos regime’s oeuvre. And while the ADB goes for the recognition of human rights, Roman voted for the non-recognition of one’s right to live, saying that “85 percent of her constituents wish for (HB 4727) to be passed” and that she had to play the game of politics. “What about my other advocacies? Should I have held on (to) a sinking ship and run, along with me and my constituents and my advocacies? Try and understand my situation,” she said at a forum in Ateneo Law.

Their statements shed even more light on the death penalty’s political nature. The day after Congress voted on the issue, Speaker Alvarez threatened those who opposed it that they would lose key positions in the committees they held. It becomes all the more obvious that the bill’s passing was not out of some great moral principle or some thesis on how good republics operate. It is not out of the question that President Duterte will eventually use the death penalty to his advantage. I can already hear him say, “You don’t want extrajudicial killings, then let’s make it judicial.” And I can already read Lorraine Badoy’s abrupt sentences, saying, “If death is declared lawful by this government which hears so much the poor people’s cries, then so be it. I am for it. I stand by it. The bishops should start listening to the real church — the people.”

Personal Whims of Revenge

But in seeing the death penalty as a political tool, the idea of imposing death on anyone is now taken out of the personal realm. Why should government pander to personal whims of revenge? If you want to inflict retribution, do it yourself.

As a tool for politics, the death penalty’s form now debunks the idea that it can offer personal retribution. As a political tool, the death penalty is its least dignified and vilest form. Imagine: anyone who would ever have anything against this monolithic, mammoth government can be condemned to death. While it only penalizes “serious drug offenses,” with the way the Duterte administration is openly declaring one drug addict after another, it will not be a surprise if the next senator to oppose Duterte would be “found” with drugs. All this is far from retribution. It will only give more power to this government, which is already drunk with it and is now spiraling out of control.

As easy as it may be to understand personal retribution, blowing it up to legislative proportions is like giving every single death a meaning — when often, death’s meaning can hardly be found. As humans, we’ve been in the business of dying ever since we were born and no one has been omniscient enough to give a clear answer as to why we all die (except maybe Jesus Christ). And I don’t think those 217 congressmen can outsmart Death either.

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Tweet the author @sarhentosilly.

DEATH PENALTY
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