The Valentine’s Day bombings in Makati, General Santos and Davao, which killed 13 people and injured 150, were certainly terrorist acts, if terrorism is defined as the indiscriminate use of violence to instill fear in furtherance of a particular goal.

It doesn’t matter how noble or debased the goal is. Terrorism is a method independent of the validity or bankruptcy of the goals of those who use it. In every instance, the point is to frighten through the message that everyone can be a target, and to coerce governments into making concessions. In making that point, terrorism kills indiscriminately.

Terrorism is also the weapon of the desperate and those who face an enemy they cannot defeat in the battlefield. It is perfectly understandable why the United States should be the target of terrorist acts, given, first, the grievances of various groups over US policies in the Middle East; and second, its military superiority, economic power, and political influence. Such a power cannot be defeated through conventional means. Thus the resort by groups such as Al Qaeda to such acts as suicide bombings and the September 11, 2001 attacks.

If terrorism by the desperate can be understood, so can state terrorism be grasped. Nothing can be more convincing and more efficient than a rain of bombs killing men, women, and children from 30,000 feet to convince the target population to withdraw its support from its government, for example. The United States did exactly that in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, in Afghanistan in late 2001, and in Iraq in 2003.

The strategy of “shock and awe” is in fact well within the parameters of terrorism, though the acts meant to deliver that message were on a far larger scale than the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But in both cases the act was not so much directed at the victims as at the survivors. The terrorist’s point is to kill so indiscriminately–to shock and awe–as to intimidate the living into immobility, defeatism, or outright surrender. There is method in this madness.

The validity and even righteousness of the cause does not make terrorism any less reprehensible. Bringing democracy and liberty to a country ruled by a dictatorship does not justify killing 100,000 civilians in Iraq. Neither do the valid grievances of the Muslim community and the desire for independence justify killing a factory worker on his way to work on a bus in Manila, or a market vendor in Davao.

That being said, it follows that whatever measures the Philippine government adopts in response to the recent bombings should be a response to terrorism as method, and not to the cause of, say, Muslim autonomy.

The burden of protecting the citizenry against such terrorist acts as the Valentine’s Day bombings is the Philippine government’s. It is perfectly within its mandate to deploy a policeman in selected buses and at strategic intersections in metro Manila. It is similarly within its mandate to enact the laws against terrorism, and to implement such other measures as will prevent similar acts in the future.

What is not in its mandate is to use the incidents as an excuse to curtail civil liberties, and to silence opposition to its policies.

But both are constant threats in the Philippines, among other reasons because of an official mindset that regards Filipino rights–to free expression, to peaceable assembly, to be secure in their homes, to the privacy of communications–as expendable luxuries that, among their other defects, enable terrorism to flourish.

That much was evident in virtually all of the anti-terrorism bills introduced in 2001 and in 2002 in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. A bill introduced by Congresswoman Imee Marcos, for example, classified as terrorism any act that interferes with or disrupts an “essential service, facility or system, whether private or public.”

An “essential service, facility or system” can only refer to public utilities like transportation, power and water, while “interference” or “disruption” of their operations can mean anything from picketing the local power company to protest rate increases, or a workers’ strike in a bus company in furtherance of workers’ rights.

The same bill endowed the police and the military with the power to search private residences so long as the owners are suspected to have committed, or of being about to commit, terrorist acts. The Marcos and other bills filed in 2001-2002 also authorized the police, the National Bureau of Investigation and military intelligence to intercept private communications, whether in the form of snail mail, email, fax, or SMS (text) messages.

The Marcos and other bills have been in legislative limbo since then. But among the responses of the Arroyo government to the Valentine’s Day bombing is to certify as urgent the passage of an anti-terrorism bill. About ten such bills are pending in the House, some of which, thankfully, avoid the pitfalls of the Marcos bill by more carefully defining what constitute terrorist acts.

House Bills 2222, 2621,2639, and 3032, for example, define a terrorist act as committed when any person or group of persons uses violence against civilians or non-combatants, or destroys and damages property, to create terror, panic or chaos.

But beyond clearly defining what terrorism is, and what acts may be classified as terrorism, the most critical issues include to what extent any anti-terrorism law will further sanction the violation of the right to peaceable assembly and free expression and to the privacy of communications.

The most stringent safeguards need to be put in place to protect these and other rights. Philippine experience shows that in the hands of the police and other security forces, any loophole no matter how small sooner or later can be made large enough to drive a truck through.

That old, reliable justification for violating human rights, “national security,” has for example been used, despite the provisions of the Bill of Rights, to deny citizens the right to counsel, the right to be free from unreasonable searches, the right to peaceable assembly and free expression, and even the right to life and liberty.

In the Philippine countryside, citizens’ homes have been searched and citizens even killed in the course of anti-insurgency campaigns. In the cities, the police routinely refuse to grant permits to, and often disperse demonstrations and other forms of assemblies. Philippine jails are crammed with prisoners with no access to lawyers. And of course, there is the killing by Philippine troops of a Muslim woman and her daughter in Maimbung Sulu, which was very likely the cause of the current fighting in the province.

An anti-terrorism act, given the reality of terrorism, would seem necessary. But any such act should take the greatest care to keep its focus on its primary purpose, which is to protect the citizenry rather than add its existing woes. Given such problems as unemployment, inflation, crime, and the inadequacy and even absence of the most basic social services, those woes are already legion. The greatest care should be taken that no madness intrudes into the government method.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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