Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Misgivings

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Like many others, I heaved a sigh of relief when it was announced that the Chinese government postponed the execution of three Filipinos convicted of drug trafficking in China.

But strangely, I didn’t feel jubilant. I had a gnawing sense that something was not entirely right with the whole thing. Perhaps what happened wasn’t wrong. But it wasn’t right, either. Sure, we saved lives and that is something we can always feel good about. I know this is not the politically correct thing to say: But at what cost?

To begin with, the decision did not really totally spare the three Filipinos from being meted the death sentence—the reports were very clear about the fact that it was a postponement, not a commutation. In short, we were given time; but to do exactly what remains to be seen. Some wags claim that we simply bought time to be allowed to accumulate favors for the Chinese government. Someone said it all boils down to the fact that there’s no such thing as a free lunch when talking diplomacy between countries that are not exactly co-equals. There was talk that the reprieve was the Chinese government’s way of returning the favor we extended when we boycotted the awarding rites of the Nobel Peace Prize last year, which was bestowed on a Chinese dissident.

Others were less subtle; they say the Chinese government gave us time to realize the folly of our request.

This brings us to the other reason why I had misgivings about the whole thing.

Like I said, I empathize with the family of the three Filipinos. I also do not believe that the death penalty has a place in civilized and humane society.

However, I must express reservations at this pattern in which we have found ourselves. And let’s make no bones about the fact that it has become a pattern. This is not the first time we have approached another government on bended knees to ask that they bend their laws to accommodate one of our citizens, who, unfortunately, has been found guilty of the crime they were accused of committing. I know, I know. It is not possible to put a value on human life and most everyone will do anything and will give up everything to save the life of someone he or she loves. Thus, it is difficult to find fault with family members who go on a media blitz to appeal to the President and everyone in position to do everything to spare the life of their loved one.

But this question still begs to be answered: At what cost?

Oh, I’ve also read the Scripture, particularly that parable about the lost sheep and the value of saving one lost soul. I’m not sure it serves anyone to be literal in his or her interpretation of what the Bible says.

At any rate, can we really afford being labeled as a country with no sense of what is right or wrong, or worse, a country that is so morally weak that it cannot impose penalties and uphold the tenets of its justice system? Do we really want to turn cases like these into a national crusade? How much longer can we sustain this kind of approach to problems like these involving Filipinos abroad convicted of crime? Do we really want to commit our government, our leaders, whatever is left of our national part in the service of such endeavors?

I was quite taken aback when the government tried to marshal everyone in this country to get China not to push through with the executions. For quite sometime there, I had the distinct feeling that there were people who were trying to turn the three Filipinos into some kind of modern-day heroes the way we turned Flor Contemplacion and Angelo de la Cruz into some kind of national symbols of oppression. I was afraid that we were sending out a new message to our children, that we were undoing years of values education about what is right and wrong. Even the call for prayers and the national vigil struck me as quite odd.

It would have been a completely different matter altogether if we did all these because we believed the decision to mete out the death penalty was based on shaky grounds and therefore patently unfair or because we honestly think that the Filipinos meted the death penalty were innocent. In matters like these, I would be one among those loudly clamoring for justice and lambasting the foreign government in question.

But this is not the so in the case of the three Filipinos in China. There is strong evidence that they were engaged in drug trafficking. Some members of their families have come out in the open admitting knowledge that the Filipinos in question were functioning as drug mules. The wife of one even went on television to admit that her estranged husband was for many years hooked on drugs and was himself a part of the drug syndicate.

Of course they also claimed that the Filipinos were victims of circumstances; that they were hapless pawns being pushed around by drug syndicates. I understand that this “victim angle” was also one of the talking points of Vice President Binay when he went to China to officially ask for the favor from the Chinese government. We can romanticize all we want, but the fact still remains—the three Filipinos were found guilty of drug trafficking. In China, that is a crime punishable by death.

Am I saying that we should have simply allowed the execution to happen without lifting a finger? Not really. I think we should have made an appeal based purely on humanitarian grounds; I still think we should have sent someone to make the appeal but it could have been someone associated with the Church, or with a human rights organization, perhaps someone with stature as a foremost humanitarian, etc. It can be argued that it would not have made the same impact as having the second highest official of the land personally doing the interceding but it would have put a completely different spin to the whole thing.

But then again, the lives of three Filipinos were spared. We don’t know how long the reprieve will last and we’re not sure we will have the moral ground to ask for yet another favor from the Chinese government the next time around considering that they have already given us this favor. It was a favor we asked for which was granted—it was a quid pro quo.

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