The slaughter of innocents

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

Two Saturdays ago, my wife Beng and I sat enthralled as we watched a brilliant performance of the play “Anak Datu” at the CCP’s Black Box Theater. It was a play that, among other objectives, sought to trace the roots of the armed conflict in Mindanao to a series of massacres perpetrated by the military against Muslims just before and after the declaration of martial law. It began with the well-documented killings of young Tausug recruits being trained in Corregidor for an abortive invasion of Sabah in 1968 and went on to the less-known Malisbong massacre in Sultan Kudarat on Sept. 24, 1974, in which 1,500 men were reportedly killed.

For us – and I’m sure for the packed crowd in the theater as well – it was a harrowing revelation. We had known about the troubles in Jolo and had followed the rise of the MNLF, but to most Manileños then and now, Mindanao was another country, tourist-pretty but woeful, home to exotic fruits, fabrics and dances, but otherwise mired in poverty, corruption and bloodshed. The play tries to break through those stereotypes even as it acknowledges the complexities of politics and culture as they apply to Mindanao, especially to people just trying to catch a breath of peace.

In pointed irony, earlier that same day on the other side of the world, Hamas militants had begun to mount an attack on Israel, eventually killing about 1,000 people and taking hundreds more hostage. In retaliation, Israel bombed the Gaza Strip and killed about as many. This nightmarish war of attrition is still continuing more than a week on, with no clear end in sight.

Like many Filipinos far from that war zone, all we could do was to mutter prayers for the dead, the displaced and the suffering on both sides. On top of the war in Ukraine and natural disasters ravaging the planet, it seemed like the world was in the sorriest mess it had ever been since the Second World War, emerging from a pandemic only to destroy itself with more willful deliberation.

I know that some were not so generous as to seek or see a moral balance, and immediately identified with Israel, invoking the Bible, Washington and common sense, especially with the reports and pictures of brave Filipino nurses standing their ground and being murdered by Hamas.

For certain, whatever and however long the history may be behind the legitimate grievances of Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation, Hamas’ brutal assault on ordinary citizens will not win them any sympathy, at least in the Western media which we depend on for our news. We know that there has to be another side to the story, perhaps one just as terrifying, but we go with what we see. It could be argued that Hamas’ actions were the result of decades of oppression, like a man running amok; but this was cold premeditation, factoring in the inevitable retaliation it would provoke.

Still, with both Jews and Palestinians fighting for survival, we forget that not all Palestinians are Hamas, and that not all Israelis supported Netanyahu. The guns will drown out the voices of moderation in both camps, those who understand that there can be no real victors in these messy wars, only losers. Lives are lost, the truth is lost, our humanity is lost.

Countless posts on social media claim that the Lord (Allah, Yahweh) has already taken a side in the conflict. But not being particularly religious, I remember only how often the Almighty’s name has been invoked to kill. The skeptic in me suspects that the Lord is, must be, indifferent, so we can use our own hearts and minds to sort things out; he will not play deus ex machina.

Nothing, not even quoted Scripture, will convince me that the slaughter of innocents in the name of God or justice is morally justified. It has happened, it happens and will always happen because of our brutish nature, but that will be an explanation, not an excuse. The hard-nosed men in the war room will dismiss all this preciousness as so much sentimental handwringing, and raise the killer question: “If the enemy goes for your wife and daughter, won’t you go for theirs?” Revenge and retribution, an eye for an eye, will prevail over reason and compassion, often devalued as suicidal weakness.

Come to think of it, no one ever called the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – in which over 100,000 people died – “massacres.” Most of them were ordinary citizens just going about their business, with little or no say in their country’s militarist policies. Instead, conventional political and military wisdom has always insisted that these deaths were necessary for other deaths – particularly American, in a projected invasion – to be averted. One hundred thousand innocent lives wiped off the face of the earth in the literal flash of an eye, and no one in power even blinked, because of course it was justified as the lesser evil, made more acceptable by the savagery unleashed by Japanese soldiers on their captive populations.

In graduate school, I developed a keen and rather morbid interest in a genre of English Renaissance drama called “revenge tragedy” (think “Hamlet,” but there were many cruder, bloodier and frankly more entertaining examples). The object of all those plays was to show that “revengers” begin with a just cause, the victims of insufferable oppression and humiliation. But ultimately they prove little better than the beasts they seek to extinguish, wreaking havoc on the innocent. They cross a line, and lose all moral superiority.

That line is drawn somewhere in the sands of the Middle East, but just as importantly, it also crosses our conscience. When we recall how easy it was for many Filipinos – even those who professed to be devout Christians – to condone and even applaud extrajudicial killings, thinking that society was merely ridding itself of riff-raff, we see how righteousness and evil can so comfortably cohabit.

I have no easy and firm conclusions to draw from this most recent conflagration, and I feel that we have to look beyond the intricacies of history and politics for answers. Diplomats, scholars and zealots have tried almost all the formulas at their disposal, to no avail – with the notable exception of the two-state policy, an elusive political solution that will come with its own challenges.

It may be that only the hopelessly naïve – and I plead guilty – still imagine that any kind of just and enduring peace can be achieved in these circumstances. But before or while we condemn barbarity elsewhere, we have our own hordes of howling ghosts to confront, coming out of the Chinese pogroms under the Spanish, Bud Dajo, Samar, Corregidor, Malisbong, Mendiola, Maguindanao and Mamasapano, among others. Let more “Anak Datus” be written, to lift and save us from Facebook’s summary judgments.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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