September is welcomed by many as the harbinger of Christmas in presumably Christian Philippines. Not only did the shopping malls in this snow-free tropical country put up holiday lights; they also began on day one of this month their usual twelve-week assault on the ears with “White Christmas” and other US culture industry wares. Housewives have also begun to plan the family’s Christmas meals, pandemic or no pandemic. Wage earners are putting away whatever amounts they can so they could have a halfway decent Christmas celebration; and the really forward-looking have started buying whatever bargains might serve as gifts come December before the prices of various goods start rising.
The early focus on the Christmas holidays in these parts is due not only to September’s marking the onset of the “ber” months. It is also because of the psychological need for some relief from the sorrows of life in these isles. But it is only the culmination of year-long efforts at the escapism via entertainment media and other diversions that helps explain the disengagement of millions of people from such public-issue discourses as the 2022 elections, unemployment and the state of the economy, and the raging pandemic the current regime has so obviously failed to contain. The events that marked September’s past and their consequences, while demanding that the citizenry remember and understand them to prevent their repetition, instead encourage an already widespread predisposition to distraction and civic indifference.
But there are constant reminders that September is not solely the onset of the year’s most anticipated holidays. It is also the birth month of Ferdinand E. Marcos, who was born on the 11th day of the month in 1917 and who placed the entire country under martial law by signing Presidential Declaration 1081 on the 21st of the same month in 1972, and implementing it two days later on the 23rd.
His daughter Maria Josefa “Imee” Marcos has urged everyone to “move on” from the controversies over her late father’s 21-year reign (1965-1986). But her own family and the current regime with which she is allied won’t. Among the indicators of the latter’s refusal to allow much of the citizenry to lapse into its accustomed indifference to public issues is President Rodrigo Duterte’s allowing in 2016 the burial of the late dictator’s remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani ( Heroes’ Cemetery), his issuing an executive order in 2017 making September 11 a holiday in the Ilocos, and his congressional allies’ making that outrage a law in 2020.
These acts provoked protests from historians and human rights groups as well as approval by the usual Marcos partisans. But what makes “moving on” even more problematic is the Marcos family’s and its cohorts’ unrelenting efforts at reinventing the sorry record of their late patriarch’s rule and at prettifying his dark legacies to Philippine politics and governance. They dismiss the human rights violations then as either imaginary or as driven by necessity and therefore justified. They malign the resistance against the dictatorship, and even go as far as to claim that that period was a “golden age” despite the economic decline, the surge in the country’s foreign debt, the corruption and the looting of the public treasury, and the abduction, torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing of dissenters, critics and suspected “subversives.”
Their version of history naturally invites honest, fact-based reiterations of what happened during the two decades of Marcos rule and its impact on Philippine society and governance. Among the latter is the empowerment of the police and military; the militarization of the highest levels of the bureaucracy; the enshrinement of violence as the primary means of compelling obedience to government diktat and silencing critics and dissenters; the runaway corruption and gross incompetence; and the use of State terrorism against its perceived foes.
What must be universally understood is that the Marcos kleptocracy made authoritarian rule the unashamed preference not only of this country’s political class but also of millions of Filipinos who mistake the rule of the oligarchy for democracy.
But September has also made a supposed terrorist threat the excuse for curtailing such rights as the presumption of innocence and even the right to life. Not only the virus of despotism that has always been resident in the Philippine ruling elite is to blame, but also the example set by the country’s foreign overlords.
Twenty years ago on September 11, 2001, a group of Saudi Arabian nationals suspected of affiliation with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network attacked targets in the US homeland. The government responded in the name of a “war on terror” by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. The supposed reason for the US’ overthrowing the then ruling Taliban by December that year was its leaders’ asking the then George W. Bush administration, when it demanded that they surrender Osama bin Laden, for proof that he indeed masterminded the 9/11 attacks. The justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was its allegedly harboring Al-Qaeda zealots and its possessing weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear, chemical and biological arms.
Bin Laden turned out to be in hiding in Pakistan, and no proof that Iraq was harboring Al-Qaeda during the rule of Saddam Hussein was ever found. The weapons of mass destruction British intelligence claimed Iraq possessed were equally non-existent. But the US example made fears of being accused of harboring terrorists — encouraged by the Western powers and their media partners — the convenient excuse for the almost world-wide assault on human rights that for over two decades has led to tolerance of, and even support for, despotism in parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.
In the US itself, fears of “Islamic terrorism” partly account for the election of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016. The support of Trump’s white supremacist base was partly driven by racist antipathy for his predecessor Barack Obama, whom they falsely accused of being a Muslim and a non-American.
The irony is that decades after it launched its “war on terror” that was actually a war for oil and global dominance, the US now has to contend with terrorist threats from its own ultra- rightist groups made up of Christian fundamentalists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the gun-crazy hordes that stormed the US Congress during the January 6 “insurrection” to stop in behalf of Trump the proclamation of Joseph Biden as President. The same groups have hailed the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, with some of their leaders declaring that something similar should happen in the US itself. National security analysts fear that these groups could launch other terrorist attacks in the US homeland as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government.
In the Philippines, the above events of September at home and abroad have added to widespread citizen fatigue and resistance in exercising the sovereign right and duty of checking government excesses, holding it accountable, and demanding and struggling for the changes the country has needed for decades.
By enabling them to take control of the circumstances that define their lives, civic and political engagement is one of the most fundamental attributes of free men and women. But for the millions caught in the bottomless pit of poverty and despair in these isles of want, September is neither a time for active involvement in public life nor for remembering the lessons of the past but for forgetting them, hence the constant threat of the tragedies of history’s repeating themselves.