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Kian was just seventeen

The killing of student Kian de los Santos highlights just how indefensible Duterte's war on drugs is

Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ, Manila

Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ, Manila

Published: August 22, 2017 04:41 AM GMT
Kian was just seventeen

Lorenza Delos Santos, 43, mother of 17-year old Kian, shows the school identification card of her slain son. Police shot and killed Kian, a Grade 11 student at a Catholic school in the suburb of Metro Manila, during an anti-narcotics operation on Aug. 15. (Photo by Vincent Go)


I was 17 when I decided to join the Jesuits. Some today may think that that was much too early to make a radical life decision, that there were too many other possibilities in life that I ought first to have explored before deciding for a life involving evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience.

For a while, my father felt that way too. I’d actually wanted to become a priest very early on, when serving at Masses regularly in our parish church at eight years of age introduced me to a love for the altar and a youthful admiration for the diocesan priests of the parish. 

When I got to the Ateneo de Manila High School, my class moderator in first year noted my desire. He told me to join Challenge House, which I did. For two years, during my second and third year high school days, I’d left home to explore the challenge now of becoming a Jesuit priest. It was a good experience. 

But I left Challenge House because my father felt it was unhealthy for me to be thinking only about the priesthood at that age. He wanted me to get out, explore the world, interact more with other-thinking people, and "get a girlfriend." So that’s what I did. But after a retreat during my first year of college, I discerned the call to the priesthood undeniable. On July 16, 1965, I entered Sacred Heart Novitiate.

I have since lived more than three times those 17 years as a Jesuit in the Philippines. After my ordination to the priesthood in 1983, I began my priestly service in the Resettlement Area of San Pedro, Laguna.

So much has unfolded in my life because of a decision I made when I was 17.

I was only in first year college, but life had already unfolded so richly, and in its further unfolding would take me to doctoral studies in Germany and Austria, teaching at Ateneo de Manila, service of the urban poor community of Kristong Hari, Commonwealth, the rectorship of San Jose Seminary, the presidency of Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Naga University, and currently Ateneo de Davao University.

So for me, it is a very personal thing. At 17, I was still in the first year at college. That today is the equivalent of eleventh grade. At 17, when I was pondering the differences between marriage and the priesthood, between management engineering and joining the Society of Jesus, I was the age of Kian de los Santos on the same academic level as he.

That Kian was framed, shot and killed in a police action gone rogue, at a time when his life was yet unfolding, is a matter of deep personal pain for me. It could have been me at 17. It could have ended all. In the case of Kian, it did end all.

It has been stated that this is an isolated case. But even if it were isolated, it is one case too many. The Philippine president has just signed the Universal Access to Tertiary Education Act into law providing real hope for quality education for all Filipino learners such as Kian. But where are we if the state on the one hand undertakes to promote their welfare through higher education, but on the other hand kills them in senior high? Where are we if the state on the one hand undertakes at great material and human expense to fight a war against drugs for their sake, but on the other hand kills them.

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When a life is taken, describing it as an isolated case rings hollow, if not cynical. When a life is taken even as genuine collateral damage in a police operation nothing can replace that life. When a life is taken through abominable police action that frames an innocent person as a criminal and shoots him to increase the statistics of "progress" in the war against drugs, this is a crime that cries to the heavens for justice.

The war on drugs must be fought. The drug menace is an international evil, driven by powerful forces of evil. This is still the case. It has for too long victimized people with impunity.

But the war on drugs is fought ultimately because those forces of evil disrespect human lives. They are evil because they destroy human lives, futures and culture particularly in the Philippines. For cheap money, they bring their victims to chemically-induced highs, but cook and extinguish their brains till little is left of the human being. In this way, they destroy whole families and whole communities. They attack the entire nation. The president has declared that the Philippines, corrupted by these drugs in all levels of government, local and national, and even in its security and its law enforcement agencies, is a narcotic state. Push back is needed.

But not in the way it is being done. If the war on drugs is fought out of respect for human life, it must be guided by respect for human life. The president must be the first to cry out for this because that is why he is fighting the war in the first place, out of his love for the country, and especially out of his love for the poor.

Where security and police forces are already flawed because of their vulnerability to corruption and disrespect for human life, even more care must be taken to lead them on the straight path, to direct them to destroy the enemy, and not the victims of the enemy. Certainly, the president must rally his forces to win the war and to legitimately defend their lives against the onslaughts of the enemy. At the same time, he must be keen not to encourage the dark culture of death against which he is fighting his war in the first place. High numbers of people killed — because they resisted — do not indicate the war on drugs being won.

Where the president himself was shocked at the extent of the use of drugs in this country and its corruptive effects, it may be helpful for him not only to declare that we are now a narcotic state but to make the nation aware of who exactly the big players are and where exactly the big distribution centers are located. He may wish to tell us that if the war on drugs was not won within six months, where the nation now is in its strategy of winning this war. He may wish to help us understand how he measures his successes, or even his failures.

He may acknowledge that since his war on drugs began many groups in civil society and in faith-based communities are contributing to the war through personal and communal efforts to battle illegal drugs and helpe their hapless victims.

He also may wish to state unequivocally that the killing of Kian at 17 does not advance the war on drugs. It debases it.

The war on drugs is a battle for human life, for human dignity and the integrity of human society in the Philippine context. The enemy of the war on drugs is not human rights. The enemy of the war on drugs is thinking a president will be pleased with large numbers of chalked-up deaths — because they fought back — that have no demonstrated strategic value in winning the war; or it is the Commander in Chief giving the troops the impression that the murder of such as Kian at 17 is defensible in the context of a narcotic state.

The death of Kian is not defensible. He was only 17. Think of all the possibilities killed. Think of his goodness extinguished. Think of his bereaved family, friends and nation.

Fr. Joel E. Tabora, SJ, is president of Ateneo de Davao University in the southern Philippines. A longer version of this article is posted on Philippine Jesuits

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