EDITORIAL | Kian is dead, Duterte’s words have a life of their own

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Kian delos Santos, Duterte
Murdered teener Kian Lloyd delos Santos (left) and President Rodrigo Duterte.

President Duterte’s statement, finally, on the police killing of Kian delos Santos seems to hit all the right notes. The President said he will not stand in the way of a credible investigation, and he will in fact back the prosecution of Kian’s arresting officers. He discredited the police’s own scrambling to demonize their young victim, only now that he is too dead to defend his name. Kian was never on anybody’s drug watch list until after his death, officers admitted… before proceeding to rationalize his execution on a sudden flood of “intelligence” that “confirm” his – and his father’s and uncle’s – previously unknown activities as drug runners and neighborhood thugs. President Duterte says he doubts the belated “intel” will stand up in court.

These words, as all words, matter. Coming from the President especially, they carry weight and moral force, if not not-so-subtle directives across all politicized branches of Philippine leadership. Kian’s family is understandably more hopeful that the arresting officers will be put behind bars. For the family’s sake, people would be right to share in and encourage that prayer for a credible probe, prosecution, and punishment.

If there is any hope that flickers, however – whether for Kian’s peace or a nation’s larger concerns for Justice – credit must go not to President Duterte’s measured words, but to the only thing that caused the firebrand to at least be sober. Hold all applause for what we find at the root of this surprising resolve and unstoppable movement in Kian’s name:

Why can the police not count on protection? Because the President will not assure it in this case.

And why not here, why not now, when Mr. Duterte had time and again assured all policemen fighting his war on drugs of his own power to pardon, should it come to that? Because until Kian’s death, government had not seen outrage so universal, so galvanized, and, frankly, so convinced.

And what is behind that unmistakable resolve? Is it civil society? Is it media? Is it, finally, empathy for thousands killed without due process? Is it, finally, an appreciation for due process? An uncompromising, principled and collective demand for rule of law?

No to all of the above.

If we are honest about the President and about ourselves, all that has caused Kian’s death to be handled differently – by the police, the government, senators, congressmen, politicians, the Left in a falling out with Duterte, media, and by the public – has nothing to do with epiphanies and values. The simple truth from which all drama and hope emanate: there was CCTV.

It was functioning. Its contents made it to Facebook. No one could deny what they saw. Not your President, and not your FB friends. And that is the only thing different. Though the police DID try to deny, that is all there is to it. Kian’s murderers will meet justice not by the courage of truth nor the resolve of people, but simply by the inconvenience of getting caught on camera.

Imagine what Duterte, Bato, or Ernesto Abella would be saying had there been no forlorn camera keeping watch over a nighttime barangay basketball shootaround. Imagine the headlines had there simply been no electricity. Government’s messaging would likely be similar to when a power-outage did in fact cut CCTVs and cloaked the deadly raid on the Parojinogs in Ozamiz. Leaders can take headlines raising questions. Public outrage, for its part, will be as muted as that for the thousands that have been killed in the drug war without benefit of shared videos you cannot avoid.

If only policemen don’t get caught on camera, things would be so much simpler. And yet the most chilling fact exposed by the CCTV footage is not that Kian’s arresting officers were stupid. It is that they were brazen. It is not that they did not know. They did not care.

And it is not that nobody had said all of this before, it is that many have refused to hear.

The President can cite drugs as the cause of everything from crime to insurgencies and corruption in the Bureau of Customs, but at the root of people’s outrage with Kian’s death is not their fear of drugs, but their distrust of a police force that has long been perceived as corrupt and enabled. And gnawing at that: the President’s own words that have further corrupted and further enabled.

No one can deny that that was Kian held on either side by policemen escorting him to his death. And no one can deny Mayor Duterte’s wisened tips to his cops even before Kian was killed. President Duterte insists: “I only vowed to protect policemen who do their jobs. They can only kill if their lives are in danger.” But there is also this: If anybody fights, if they shoot back, then by all means, kill. If there is no gun, give him a gun. Certainly, do not worry, because the President can assure you of pardon.

These words, as all words, matter.

The prosecution of Kian’s killers bears no guarantee that that guidance has been lifted. Indeed, we imagine the lesson for cops now is not to no longer take the President at his word. There is only gamely taking a hard slap on the backside of their heads: “And don’t get caught.”

All this is to say – Yes, thank you, by all means: Justice for Kian! But do not credit the President for anything more than standing down in the face of uneditable footage. Neither should we flatter each other for something that has yet to be won, or even fought for. To stand up for Kian is not the same as standing up to the irresponsibility of the President’s reckless words and his telling actions, and demanding accountability for every life lost in the name of a proudly wild war on drugs.

Justice for Kian does not call for an end to impunity, does not demand the return of rule of law, does not a movement make. Not yet.