The Nobel laureate William Faulkner observed some 50 years ago that their tragedy is that human beings can get used to anything. Faulkner was speaking in the context of the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, and the fear to which his generation had grown so accustomed it had become part of daily life. But his observation helps explain why public interest in the Ampatuan massacre of November 23 is waning.
As huge an outrage as the killing was of 57 men and women, 32 of whom were journalists and media workers, most Filipinos are already in the process of forgetting it, have already forgotten it, are no longer interested in it, or, when it was reported, were not even particularly shocked by it. Filipinos too can get used to anything — including the most brutal of murders and the worst killing of journalists in history.
They’ve had a lot of practice in taking violence in stride. Although they insist that they’re a peaceful people, and violence alien to their nature, the reality suggests the opposite. Philippine history is nothing if not a record of violence — not only of rebellions and insurrections, and of wars and uprisings, but also of the violence the unjust political and social structures inflict on the majority in the form of hunger and despair as well as the denial of rights, including such basic ones as the right to life and freedom from fear.
Violence and the threat of it are as resident in the daily lives of the majority as joblessness and want. In the urban warrens of the poor, mayhem and even sudden death are common, provoked by reasons the observer might conclude to be trivial, among them petty disagreements even among friends and neighbors — the consequence of the poverty that compels people to live practically cheek by jowl with each other, and to compete for limited resources.
Violence too is among the distinguishing features of Philippine elections, together with fraud and vote-buying. Ordinary folk are often caught in the conflicts that inevitably erupt among the camps of the handful of families and dynasties that contend for supposedly elective posts made lucrative by vast opportunities for corruption. Election- related violence in the Philippines has historically included harassment, threats of physical harm, kidnapping, murder, bombings and arson. Hired thugs, as well as police and military elements co-opted by political camps at the local level are the usual hatchet men of local warlords. But a disturbing trend in recent years has been the use, the virtual privatization, by the executive branch of the military and police in elections, the “Hello Garci” scandal being its most prominent example.
Although both for the number of casualties as well as for its brutality, it belongs in a class of its own, the Ampatuan massacre was nevertheless election- related, prompting predictions of further violence as the 2010 elections approached. The massacre was after all prompted by the contention between two previously allied clans, each with its own private army, over the gubernatorial and other posts in Maguindanao province.
Because of the excessively long periods in which candidates prepare for elections, incidents of violence often occur long before the actual campaign period. The Ampatuan massacre occurred two months and 17 days before the start of the official campaign period of 60 days for national elections (February 9), and 29 days before the official start of the campaign period of 45 days for local elections (March 10).
In 1988, nearly 200 people died in some 300 election-related incidents of violence; in 1992, 87 in 150 incidents; in 1997, over 100 in about 200 incidents; in 1998, 80 died in over 300 incidents. The incidents and deaths started in the months preceding the campaign, or the pre-election period when the candidates start preparing for the elections, up to election day itself.
So “normal” an accompaniment of Philippine elections are incidents of violence and deaths that the Commission on Elections as well as the Philippine National Police characteristically declare elections “peaceful” or “relatively peaceful” solely on the basis of the number of deaths on election day itself. The nine deaths on election day 1998, for example, qualified the elections of that year for the description “peaceful”. In the 2007 senatorial elections, on the other hand, 8o people had been hurt and 75 killed as the campaign warmed up. But that year compared favorably with 2004, when a total of 150 people were killed in election related violence.
With such numbers “normally” involved, only the brutality of the Ampatuan massacre, and its including a record number of journalists and media workers shocked Filipinos as well as foreign observers. But the shock is wearing off, as the judicial process that’s supposed to obtain justice for the victims moves glacially. The hearings Filipinos had been reading about in the newspapers and seeing over television have been indefinitely postponed to allow the judges in both the multiple murder as well as rebellion cases, now both in Regional Trial Courts in Quezon City, to resolve the multiple motions (14) the lawyer of Andal Ampatuan Jr. has filed, as well as the prosecution’s motion for the judge in the rebellion case to inhibit himself from trying the case.
And yet the indefinitely postponed hearings in the case of Ampatuan Jr., a hundred days after the massacre itself, were only hearings on his petition for bail, a fact that media and other groups find distressing because it could forebode a trial ten, twenty times more protracted.
Meanwhile, the media too appear to have temporarily rested. Although occasional stories still appear in print as well as broadcast, the media have been focused mostly on the national elections, to the neglect of such related stories as how the elections in Maguindanao are likely to proceed given the Mangudadatu-Ampatuan conflict.
Only remembrance, it is said about the Jewish Holocaust, can prevent its repetition. If that is indeed the case, and given the short memories of Filipinos, the violence that’s so much a part of their lives is likely to continue to haunt this country, its elections, and the media.