Those who say that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s decision to allow the execution of death row convicts ten days after she had argued against it was meant to get the support of Chinese Filipinos are wrong. She isn’t just courting the Chinese Filipino community; she’s courting the entire Filipino majority.

None of the polling groups has recently taken a survey on it. But the death penalty is widely popular among the citizenry, including the poor from among whom the flawed justice system draws most of its victims. Businessmen approve of it, and so do most professionals, students, and workers. Certainly, Chinese Filipinos think the death penalty is the best way to stop the kidnappings that target non-Chinese as well.

It’s understandable because, at least partly due to the Arroyo government, Filipinos of whatever social class or economic standing live in fear of being victimized by increasingly bolder criminals. In that sense does crime have a democratizing effect. It can victimize the poor as well as the rich, the educated as well as the ignorant. The only difference is the criminal’s take, which could be millions in a kidnapping, and a few hundred pesos from a bag-snatching.

The suffering and costs to the victims are the same. If paying millions of pesos in ransom can hurt the rich, so can the loss of a few pesos hurt the poor. And a murder, whether in a family that lives in a ritzy “village” or a slum, is still a death that must be mourned and its costs counted.

That is why crime is so emotional an issue. It can hurt and touch anyone, as indeed even kidnapping is beginning to do so: there are reports of even middle class professionals being kidnapped-and released after payment of ransoms as small as P25,000.

From the newspapers and the six o’clock news Filipinos read or hear about murders, rapes, robberies, kidnappings and other mayhem daily. They learn about an attempted cell phone snatching in which the son or daughter of an acquaintance was stabbed, or about a community beauty parlor being robbed.

They’re awakened at night by the sound of gunfire in certain neighborhoods like the high-crime Kamuning-Kamias areas of Quezon City. Neighbors tell them about the old couple down the block found dead whose house had been ransacked for the pitiful valuables of a lifetime. They hear about a bus or FX holdup in which the hold-uppers took their sweet time divesting every passenger of everything they had, including this month’s pay and even their wedding rings.

The simplistic solution is to increase penalties, on the supposition that the greater the punishment, the greater the deterrent. The death penalty is as high a penalty as anyone can get without introducing the medieval practice of drawing and quartering. It also satisfies the desire, equally understandable, for vengeance.

If it were up to your barber every last one of those in death row deserves death ASAP. What’s more, taxi drivers who support Panfilo Lacson for his shoot- them- up ways will tell you, to stop crime it’s time to kill every criminal no matter what the offense, as happens in Rodrigo Duterte’s Davao City. There people get killed for snatching cellphones or for using drugs–and without the benefit of a trial, or even an arrest and an arraignment.

Except among the relatives of those killed, Duterte is extremely popular. He’s not only hailed for supposedly boosting tourist arrivals in Davao; he’s also one of Mrs. Arroyo’s “peace and order” advisers. In one “peace and order” (the preferred term hereabouts rather than “law and order,” which emphasizes the observance of legal niceties) summit in Manila several months ago, Mrs. Arroyo in fact held Duterte up as a model of the successful crime-fighting city executive. She didn’t say anything then about her aversion to “taking human lives.”

No matter. Whether committed extra-judicially on a sewage-clogged street or within legal bounds at the National Penitentiary’s lethal-injection chamber, there’s no doubt that most Filipinos approve of the death penalty. Mrs. Arroyo, who needs all the help she can get for May 10, 2004, knows it. It explains why she reversed herself, after arguing passionately against the death penalty only a few days before December 5.

Mrs. Arroyo’s reversal was well within the by now established bases of her policy making, which is politics and popularity.

It’s fairly clear that Mrs. Arroyo knows that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime even if does satisfy the unchristian impulse for vengeance.

“We have had executions in the past and these have provided a steam valve (sic) to vent the public’s ire against hardened criminals.” Mrs. Arroyo said only last November 25. “But these executions did not stop heinous crimes.”

“Executions,” she went on, “may give us some form of emotional release and a transient sense of retribution and security, but the more effective solutions lie in fielding the entire criminal justice system against criminals, so that we can effectively curb kidnapping, robbery, murder or rape.”

Behind the officialese, Mrs. Arroyo was saying that:

1. The death penalty has not deterred criminals from committing the “heinous crimes” the penal code punishes with death;

2. The death penalty satisfies only the emotional desire for vengeance; and

3. Crimes can be deterred only by efficient law enforcement.

Last December 5, however, Mrs. Arroyo announced that she would allow executions scheduled for January 2004 in response to “the cry for just retribution under the law”. One doesn’t need a PhD to conclude, as the Catholic Bishops Conference’s Executive Director Rodolfo Diamante did, that “it’s about the elections.”

The Arroyo government’s policies, whether domestic or foreign, have in fact always been shaped by the elections. It was the elections that in April 2001 nearly led Mrs. Arroyo, out of fear of his followers and the votes they could command, to intervene in the filing of plunder charges against former President Joseph Estrada. It was also the elections that led her to entice Blas Ople in 2002 to serve as her secretary of foreign affairs. In the latter instance it was also to stabilize administration control of the Senate, and to placate the opposition.

But most of all have the Arroyo policies been focused, despite Mrs. Arroyo’s claims, on what’s popular rather than what’s good for the country. It was her calculation that it would be popular which drove her to invite US troops into the country in 2002; what’s popular that drove her to express total unconditional support for United States actions in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack on the New York World Trade Center; and what’s popular that led her government to sign the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement without the consent of the Senate this year.

In deepening the country’s military and diplomatic engagement with the United States, Mrs. Arroyo was also moved by the calculation that she needs US support to prevail in 2004. Her government has signed a bilateral agreement with the United States exempting US troops and other personnel from prosecution under the International Criminal Court. The same government has virtually assured the re-establishment somewhere in Mindanao, probably in Sarangani Bay, of a US military base despite a constitutional ban on foreign troops.

Policy has in short served the ends of politics in the Arroyo administration in the past, and it is doing so now on the matter of the death penalty. Lives, not only in this instance but in others as well, are of course involved. As lawyer Theodore Te of the Free Legal Assistance Group puts it, “the right to life cannot and should not be placed on the altar of politics.”

Neither should the right to sovereignty, to regular employment, or a life free from fear. But these are of no moment to a government that has obviously and repeatedly demonstrated a commitment to staying on beyond 2004 at all costs, including that of rational policies. Ironically, that demonstration of its singular focus is convincing more and more Filipinos that it’s time for it to go.

(Today/, December 9, 2003)


Luis V. Teodoro

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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