It Is Frightening

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Over the years, I have suffered deep stabs of pain every time I read of another life subjected to torture and summary execution. There is a helplessness that drags my soul to depths of despair, even though the individuals involved are not friends or relations. There is rage, too, at the evil which drives power to extreme abuse, when authority provides a protective cloak at people no better than beasts.

For over thirty years, I have stood as bystander, like most Filipinos, at social conflicts that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in most brutal ways – not counting the millions who have been affected. I have seen the military use and abuse their position and power, and I have seen rebels retaliate with their own brand of viciousness. Because of the extended violence that has plagued our society as the Armed Forces battle communist rebels and Muslim separatists, everyone has a reason to justify behavior which makes me wonder if God truly gave mankind intelligence.

Since I was not part of the military, nor part of the insurgency and separatist movement, I played deaf and dumb as long as I could to the bloodshed that has drenched our sacred land. I would do so longer if I could. But my heart is pained such that the anguish will surely shorten my days, a kind of anguish which I thought not possible anymore. After all, I discovered poverty some years ahead, and simple awareness of the suffering of the poor evokes pain and anguish as well.

When a life is lost to illness that could not be attended to because the patient is poor, or to hunger, to fear, to despair, what is the difference when a life is snuffed out by the barrel of the gun? Nothing, it seems, because the root cause is the same. Actually, there are some distinctions. Poverty kills in great numbers, in the millions and tens of millions, through abbreviated life spans. Violence is more instant, but more bestial. Yet, both are derived from power warped – the killing, I mean.

When I was afraid of the conjugal dictatorship and the abuses it spawned through cronies and allies – and their children (remember who many their children caused to be killed?), I wished for their enemies to topple and remove them forever. They were toppled, removed, but not forever. And certainly not their ways, not forever, not even for a while. If torture and executions happened then, they happen now. If they happen in the military and the police, they happen elsewhere, too.

But bestiality among terrorists is to be expected. That is the main weapon of terrorism – to exact fear by extreme forms of violence, creatively extreme. Bestiality among those in authority, however, is uglier. There is not only violence, there is betrayal. If there is a God, betrayal must be a particularly distasteful offense. No wonder the act of Judas is so magnified in Biblical accounts, the kiss of death, the thirty pieces of dirty silver.

As I immerse in the work for the poor, I see the betrayal that has thrown them into the dreaded pit where only the poor languish. Our poor, the Filipino poor, has been cursed with a poverty in the midst of plenty, in a land that can be said almost as beautiful, lush and abundant as Paradise. But we have a Cain and Abel story here, where one brother conspires to obtain what is meant to be his brother’s. The Cains of the motherland kill the Abels, not directly, but slowly by denying them their share of the Creator’s bounty.

Now, the Cains wish to do the killing more literally, more in keeping with the Biblical rendition. By a perversion that cannot prosper without encouragement from those they fear and obey, renegades in uniform take a descending path to hell, choosing to be criminals first, then choosing to be beasts.

This is where I scoff at the hypocrisy or the cowardice of leaders of Church and State, of bishops and politicians. Millions go hungry, hundreds are tortured and killed, and the outcry is Con-Ass, the outcry is birth control. Where are their heads, where are their hearts? The stain our on collective soul as a people is injustice representing the defiance of God and His divine intent. There can be no greater causes than the war against poverty and the violent, animal behavior by agents of authority.

To digress attention from the desolation of the impoverished and the victims of violence is tantamount to overturning natural law and ascribing to God virtues and priorities not His own. Talk about usurpation of authority! By focusing on the Less is a devious way to avoid the More, a consequence of an errant mind and a cowardly heart.

All pulpits, all halls of Congress and legislative bodies, all city and town auditoriums, all public plazas should be the hosts of daily condemnation against the injustice imposed on the poor and the innocent, and daily exhortation for cowards to be again patriots and heroes. We cannot tolerate injustice at the most primal of levels because that spells the death of our race and all that is noble and holy in our lives.

We are Filipinos. Of what value is life without our honor? Of what value is life without dignity, the same dignity that has been robbed of tens of millions among us? Has cowardice reached such dominance in our lives that we can know of crimes against our own brothers and sisters yet pretend it is all so normal?

Fear has stopped us from adhering to what we claim we believe in. Religion and politics have become like opium, not anymore to keep people in subjugation to colonial masters, but to dull our conscience and justify our cowardice. Patience is not a virtue when we tolerate wrongdoing. Obedience is not a virtue when it asks for tolerance to wrongdoing.

If one does not have the courage to protest publicly against injustice, then one can rectify the suffering that injustice inflicts. If one cannot raise a voice, cannot march against injustice, then one can rush to the poor or to victims of violence, embrace them, feed and clothe them, soothe and assure them, then ask forgiveness from them.

It is not poverty, torture or murder that is frightening; it is cowardice.

In bayanihan, we will be our brother’s keeper and forever shut the door to hunger among ourselves.

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