Simply wrong

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

I think it is important to make sure that this point is put forward clearly, repeatedly, even more assertively, above the din and dynamics of the debate: What Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte did last Friday was wrong. Punching someone is wrong. It doesn’t matter what the provocation was. It doesn’t matter if Duterte is mayor. It doesn’t matter if she was under so much stress, or that she was a woman whose authority was undermined. It doesn’t matter what cause she was fighting for or what her motivation was. What she did was wrong.

It is wrong to punch someone, period.

We are not even talking about why it is wrong for a public official to do that to another official who ranks lower in the bureaucracy. We are not yet talking about why it is wrong to do something like that in public, in full view of thousands of people including children who tend to idolize action figures who deliver justice swiftly by taking mattes into their own hands. And we are not yet talking about why it is wrong to resort to violence as a form of justification to stop a situation that was on the verge of becoming violent.

It is important to stress this message because what happened last Friday is bound to shake and perhaps even reshape notions of what is acceptable behavior for leaders in the current milieu. But first, let us come to terms with this basic undeniable fact: it was wrong.

There is a part of me—admittedly a minuscule part—that wants to jump up and shake the mayor’s hand for sheer chutzpah on her part. It’s not every day that you see a female mayor, heck, any mayor for that matter, show that kind of decisiveness, that kind of dogged determination to stop a situation from degenerating into total mayhem. The videos of the incident that have become viral in the Internet show just how the mayor put herself right in front of the very tense confrontation without care for her own safety—striding into the scene with grim fortitude and a don’t-mess-with-me countenance, and commanding everyone to stand down. They all did.

One wishes many of our leaders are able to show that kind of boldness in the face of confrontation. Imagine what someone like Duterte could have done at the Quirino grandstand during those fateful hours of that bungled hostage-taking incident last year. She probably would have marched right into the front of the bus and demanded that the hostage taker stand down right that very moment.

What Duterte did was undeniably worthy of our attention, probably because we have become used to having leaders that ensconce themselves in control rooms, donning bulletproof vests, or simply not being where the crisis is. But it still was wrong, simply wrong for her to punch Sheriff Abe Andres!

There are those who believe that the issue acquired deeper significance only because of the mayor’s gender. An emerging point of view is that if Duterte was a man (the image of her own father, former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte himself a man renowned for his no-nonsense and take-charge leadership stance), the issue would not have been such a big deal because it is presumed that kind of male assertiveness would have come with the territory.

We should reconsider our stereotypes of women leaders and certainly, Sara Duterte can be credited for achieving in barely a few minutes what the likes of Miriam Defensor Santiago (who once flaunted a gun on top of her desk and dared authorities to come get her) or Lorna Kapunan (who reported to Congress in the eighties brandishing an Uzi at the height of yet another coup d’etat) has so far failed to do.

What the incident illustrated was that a woman can just be as gritty as a man; and sadly, just as rash and obstinate. But what Duterte did was still wrong; we need to be clear about this.

Duterte is being proclaimed by some quarters as ultimate champion of the poor and downtrodden and her behavior last Friday is being hailed as heroic. It is sad that issues like this are exploited to further polarize the rich and the poor in this country. I am not sure Sheriff Andres represents the rich; we certainly can surmise that Duterte lives a comfortable life. But Duterte’s behavior last Friday was not symptomatic of the behavior of the rich, the poor, or the champions of either. It was just plain human behavior; which in this particular instance was not appropriate and therefore wrong.

There are those who offer the justification that the sheriff showed disrespect and an utter lack of judgment when he pushed through with the demolition despite a request from the mayor to hold off the demolition for two hours. Parts of Davao City were still reeling last Friday from the aftermath of a massive flash flood that demolished villages and killed a still undetermined number of people. Surely, a simple request from a harassed mayor could have been granted. It was also learned that Duterte herself had met with the squatters a day before to assure them that they would be relocated and given assistance.

It is possible that the Mayor was suffering from too much stress and the display of insolence and the brazen effort to undermine her authority proved too much for her frail nerves. Tao lang (she is just human) sounds like a sensible justification but it still doesn’t make what she did right. It was still wrong.

I am not going to give a lecture on why public officials should conduct themselves in a manner befitting their stature as people who command respect and are worthy of emulation for being the epitome of probity and sound judgment. There are leadership styles and there are leadership styles and prescriptions are only applicable in theory. At the end of the day, the effectiveness of a leadership style is best measure by the results it produces. Davao City today is a far cry from where it was two decades ago—a city at the brink of utter collapse as various forces threatened to tear it apart with their own vested political interests.

But I don’t quite buy the assertion that the matter is only relevant to the people of Davao City. The people of Davao City can very well judge for themselves whether Duterte’s actions last Friday should be forgiven or punished. That can be settled in a few years through elections. But Duterte should be made to account for her behavior as a local official who swore on a bible to uphold the laws of the Republic of the Philippines. Davao City is not a fiefdom or at least that is what we want to believe. She is still answerable to certain standards as a local executive.

We can debate about the social, cultural, anthropological implications of Duterte’s rash actions last Friday. But all these should not, must not deflect from a very basic truth, which we should never ever gloss over. The behavior was wrong. The behavior was inappropriate. There is no excuse that can justify what she did. It was wrong and she should apologize and make amends.

As to the appropriate punishment for her actions, that is something that the appropriate authorities and the people of Davao can very well decide for themselves.


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