Many on my social media feed are enraged because of the unimaginable spike in the killings of suspected drug pushers and users in the Philippines. There have been thousands to date. The death of a 17-year-old grade 11 student on Aug. 15 gave a face to these thousands, a rallying point for the year of grim, brutal deaths that were virtually ignored by many. A lot has been said about how the killings seem to have been isolated to a single class — i.e. the country's poor. The rich drug lords are somehow immune from this brand of injustice, as if poverty makes a man's life of less worth. Those in the know say that those killed are small-scale dealers who can lead authorities to big-time drug operators and the men in uniform who protect their operations. Given the promised "cleansing" that catapulted President Rodrigo Duterte into power, fear of getting caught and having their money making ventures brought to a halt pushed them one step ahead.
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What better way to silence potential witnesses than not having them at all? Murder registers as a crime regardless of who commits it and who it is committed against, and it is even worse when it is committed by those who are expected to protect you. Labels are powerful because they define. Criminals. Scum of the earth. Lawless elements. But definitions are always abstract until they become personal, until it is a loved one trying a hit, until you learn that in your own social circle people have struggled with addiction, until it is a 17 year old who is killed. The labels become more nuanced. When it is someone you know, you try to mentally and emotionally navigate the best you can the gray areas and find that there is none — only right and wrong. The literature is fascinating. Author Johann Hari argues in his book Chasing the Scream
that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection. He talked to a crack dealer, a scientist, a hitman from a Mexican drug cartel, a homeless addict, etc. He made recordings of the interviews available on the web. "They taught me, in their different ways, that when we give in to our anger towards addicts, or drugs — and there's some of it in all of us — the problem only gets worse; and when we choose a deep kind of love, the results can be amazing," Harris wrote in The Guardian
. Compassion and courage are contagious, he adds. Journalist Alix Spiegel, who has covered psychology and human behavior for National Public Radio in the U.S., has written about the state-sponsored study on heroin-addicted U.S. soldiers deployed to Vietnam. Almost all of them (95 percent) returned to the U.S. and lived sober lives upon return. A change in environment provides a strong impetus for a change in human behavior because of the human tendency to "outsource control to our environment." And then there's the famous Rat Park study showing that signs of the rats' dependence on morphine withered in the presence of distractions. Rats preferred plain water over morphine-laced water when there were other activities they could do inside their rat cage. Scientific consensus on these things may be hard to come by, but they are worth sharing. The point is that humane interventions exist. In the Philippines, big-time drug operations continue to prey on victims of drug abuse, who are often also the victims of social neglect, poverty, and difficult upbringings. The conversation surrounding drug dependency is deeply intertwined with class. Who are we going after? Let's go after all crooks, but give them all their due process rights. We all know that violence perpetuates violence. One day it is a pusher, then a rapist, then a snatcher all just suspected of being so. The next day, it is an innocent person. Who comes next? When do we begin to look at them as father, brother, friend? Perhaps not ours, but definitely somebody else's. Each killing creates a new set of victims — a new widow, another fatherless child. Each loss shapes another lived experience negatively, pitting the government against the poor, creating an "us versus them" mentality — a breeding ground for radicalism and distrust. To practice a little compassion takes believing that a system will work, trusting that a reformed mind and body is possible. It can seem hopeless. Legal structures that punish perpetrators don't seem robust enough while bureaucratic strains weigh heavy, making it an impossible task to weed out crime. Prosecutors know this first-hand. The ugly truth lurks — that money and connections provide leverage for anyone seeking to circumvent rules. It makes you gravitate towards the side of doubt. Policemen pay out of pocket for gas when in hot pursuit, because making a request takes time. Overworked prosecutors aren't paid enough and have little incentive when not accepting under-the-table offers. There's clogging in court dockets, perceived pressure by public prosecutors from superiors to approve indictments, and case delays. It really can become quite hopeless. But if you're a father and your son for some reason or another becomes a pusher or a substance abuser, will your solution be simply to have your son killed? Closely evaluating the deeply jarring costs behind this sweeping vigilantism and reckless killings based on evidence unexamined by judicious arbiters, behind the lifeless bodies on the streets that wear cardboard signs labeled with alleged crimes, must move us to respect and pressure authorities to respect due process. Maybe we're forgetting that these men are people like us, who may have been born into and grew up with a different set of circumstances that had led them to make these choices. We do not know how tough some neighborhoods in this country can be, how survival sometimes means taking a wrong turn. We are lucky some of us have never had to make that choice in our lifetime. This is not to justify pernicious actions and illegitimate acts. This is to say that a day in court means getting to know whatever mitigating factors there are which the court would deem worthy to be incorporated as it issues a verdict. It may also mean that the innocent are spared, at least the best we know how. That a migrant worker trying her best to provide his family with a better life would not have to come home to the corpse of his dead teenage son. And even when we talk of notorious pushers in the community, when a family is willing to stick it out with their father in jail or in rehab — to continue their fantasy image of what a family is even with an incarcerated family member as a number of Filipino families still do, to consider that as a more viable option over his death — then that family must have that chance to do so. A day in court means a chance at rehabilitation, no matter how poor the system is. Most of all, it means we will work towards improving that system — fairer good conduct and time allowance schemes for the imprisoned, drug prevention programs for the youth, or, as Harris argues, countering addiction with connections in schools and in communities, preventing further violence, providing illegal substance dependents with distractions similar to the Rat Park study, and taking away stimuli or changing the environment that had driven them to substance abuse to begin with. We should utilize these tools and other such interventions the best we can instead of murder, but we can only do that if murder was never made an option and never spoken about with such recklessness and bravado to begin with. Buena Bernal is a freelance journalist in Manila.