The Spectre of Terror: Philippine Democracy and the Threat of the New (Ab)normal

Jove Jim S. Aguas, Paolo A. Bolaños, and Jovito V. Cariño are members of the Department of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines.

Recently the Philippine Congress has passed a law, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (Republic Act No. 11479)[1], amidst criticisms and pleas against it from various sectors in the Philippines and other parts of the world.  It is not surprising that the bill has been signed by President Rodrigo Duterte on 3rd July 2020.[2]  At a very early stage, opponents of the bill from civil society including protesters on the ground geared up to challenge its constitutionality at the Philippine Supreme Court.[3]  The most ominous provisions that critics are protesting include: the very broad definition of terrorism, the threat against freedom of expression, warrantless arrest, expanded surveillance, arbitrary detention and the president’s arrogation of quasi-judicial power via the proposed Anti-Terrorism Council whose composition also depends on presidential appointment. 

The passage of this bill, given the current administration’s well-documented and notorious record of impunity, selective justice, summary killings, incompetence and authoritarian leaning, does not augur well for the Philippines – which continues to reel from the damaging health and economic impact of COVID-19.[4]  It does not help that the country remains confined in a lockdown imposed by the government for almost six months now, one of the longest anywhere in the world, thus making any large communal protest rally or mass action next to impossible.  

The COVID-19 pandemic did not only catch us Filipinos off guard, it has also made us vulnerable. Not only to the disease, but also to the possible consequences of two recent and controversial issues involving the Congress: the failure to grant ABS-CBN (the largest media network in the Philippines) a franchise to operate and the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020.  It is interesting to note that the shutting down of ABS-CBN was largely due to the inaction of Congress, while, in stark contrast, the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 was passed swiftly and with much zeal.  These events triggered a chilling memory for Filipinos. In 1972, when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, the same media network was shut down and its headquarters sequestered by the Marcos regime.  

Moreover, the legitimation of warrantless arrest by the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 is an ominous sign that an impending dark age could come to haunt the Filipino nation once again.  Reminiscent of days past, the ABS-CBN fiasco and the new anti-terrorism bill pose threats to Philippine democracy.  We also hasten to add that these events occurred against the backdrop of the cyber libel case filed against Maria Resa, CEO of Rappler, an online news network critical of the Duterte administration. 

By fast-tracking a measure meant for the State to flex more power and to neutralize the critical practices fundamental to a democratic society, the government reveals its desire to push its hegemonic tendencies as a priority over the much needed public health crisis interventions like mass testing and contract tracing which the Philippines, presently, sorely lacks. Because of the expansive authority it bestows on the executive branch of the government to police, restrict and penalize the political movement and interaction of citizens (be it in private, public or digital spaces), the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 makes it practically possible for the Duterte regime to set in place a permanent state of exception (to borrow from Giorgo Agamben)[5] and, in effect, simulate an environment of martial order sans the formal declaration of martial rule.[6]  

The manner by which the COVID-19 pandemic has been handled by Philippine authorities is already symptomatic of such a state of exception. Measures have been implemented that empower the police and military, instead of people from tmedical fields, the scientists and academics who could potentially contribute to an informed understanding of the disease.  A president, who has gotten away with mouthing expletives on national TV, has also gotten away with declaring a shoot to kill order on quarantine violators who cause trouble.[7]  This does not help, regardless of whether Duterte is being serious or not about his diatribes, if the streets are manned by trigger happy police officers who are not able to distinguish between a terrorist, a communist, a quarantine violator, and a simple nuisance.  Everyone, especially the regular Filipino, becomes a suspect—making the COVID-19 lockdown a perfect dress rehearsal for martial rule.  

The potential of the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 to normalize this state of exception and to legitimize its negation of political dissent is palpably real. When one sees this and finds on the other side the refusal or reticence of others to recognize it as an imminent and immanent danger, the prospects for Philippine democracy becomes more terrifying than the specter of terrorism itself.

A law on terrorism is an urgent and necessary legislation given the global reach of terrorism and the complexity of the orchestration of these acts of terror. Terrorism should be resolutely dealt with but it becomes a major public concern when a law can be weaponized and used not just against its legitimate targets but also against those who oppose the government and are critical of its policies and actions. 

A law can be compared to a knife which can be used to cut for a useful purpose or be utilized for a murderous intent. What a knife amounts to, therefore, depends on who holds the knife and what is their intention for using it. This new anti-terrorism bill can be used like a knife wrongfully when left in the hands of a government widely known for its flirtations with autocracy, wanton disregard of civil and human rights, selective justice and vindictive politics.  There are therefore apprehensions and anxieties brought about by this bill on anti-terrorism. These apprehensions and anxieties are not unfounded given the killings that surround its campaign against illegal drugs and the charges levelled against the critics of the government.[8] There is a clear possibility that the bill could be utilized for the wrong reasons and against the wrong targets. This alone is enough reason to be apprehensive and be worried about, even if the proponents of this bill would like us to believe that there are “safety nets.”  Had this government been respectful of our rights, the public agitation would not have been this intense.  There are currently twenty-seven petitions versus the anti-terrorism bill filed at the Supreme Court.[9]

The crux of the matter perhaps is in the dynamics between freedom and law. Freedom is the capacity of one to express them self but when freedom becomes absolute and unrestrained especially in the political domain such unrestrained freedom can be dangerous and can destroy the society or the collective. Laws are supposed to legislate in order to promote the good and preserve order in society, to protect the rights of individuals and safeguard their freedom. Laws are supposed to serve the purpose of justice and order. Laws are supposed to empower people and not stifle their development or suppress their rights. They are supposed to create an environment where people can express their freedom responsibly, to promote justice and order in society.

However, when the legislation of laws is left in the hands of people with less than noble intentions then laws can also be unjust and curtail the very freedom that it is supposed to protect, violate the rights of individuals and undermine the order and good of society.  Immanuel Kant said that the only thing good without exception is a good will.[10]  This entails that, beside good will, other things are good only with qualification—such as, power, wealth, and intelligence.  Power is good only if applied with a good intention or good will.  As a human legislation, this bill in particular may have a good intention and some safety nets in place, as its proponents claim, but the problem is that it is difficult to trust the intention of its main implementer.

The law must be an enabling factor, a source of empowerment of people and not a weapon to suppress them. Otherwise the law becomes the source of terror itself.  To borrow a line from Charles de Montesquieu’s The Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans: “There is no tyranny more cruel than that which is perpetrated under color of the laws and in the name of justice—when, so to speak, one is drawn down and drowned by means of the very plank which should have borne him up and saved his life.”[11]


[1] The Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippineshttps://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2020/06jun/20200703-RA-11479-RRD.pdf

[2] Daryl John Esguerra, “Duterte signs anti-terror bill into law,” in INQUIRER.net (3 July 2020), https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1301426/breaking-duterte-signs-anti-terror-bill-into-law

[3] See Jodesz Gavilan, “Stealth declaration of martial law: Rights groups slam Duterte, anti-terror law,” in Rappler (3 July 2020), https://rappler.com/nation/human-rights-groups-statements-duterte-signing-anti-terror-law, also Lian Buan, “Critics ready to petition vs anti-terror bill – and Carpio is one of them,” in Rappler (17 June 2020), https://rappler.com/nation/critics-ready-petition-vs-anti-terror-bill-carpio-one-of-them.

[4] See the following: Miguel Syjuco, “This Is Why Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Will Get Away With Murder,” in TIME (16 August 2016), https://time.com/4453587/philippines-rodrigo-duterte-dictator-impunity-marcos/ and Jodesz Gavilan, “4 years on, climate of fear and impunity blocks justice for Duterte’s drug war victims,” in Rappler (27 June 2020), https://rappler.com/newsbreak/in-depth/duterte-year-4-climate-fear-impunity-blocks-justice-drug-war-victims.

[5] Cf. Giogio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. by Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 1-31.

[6] As Senate President Vicente Sotto III intimates, “Hindi na kailangan ng martial law kapag napasan naming itong anti-terror bill” (“If we are able to pass the anti-terror bill, then there’s no need to declare martial law”).  See Antonio T. Carpio, “No need for martial law,” in INQUIRER.net (18 June 2020), https://opinion.inquirer.net/130895/no-need-for-martial-law.

[7] Xave Gregorio, “Duterte tells police, military to shoot unruly quarantine violators,” in CNN Philippines (1 April 2020), https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2020/4/1/Rodrigo-Duterte-police-military-shoot-unruly-quarantine-violators.html.

[8] Cf. Syjuco, “This Is Why Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Will Get Away With Murder” and Jodesz Gavilan, “4 years on, climate of fear and impunity blocks justice for Duterte’s drug war victims.” 

[9] See Dona Z. Pazzibugan, “Lawyers, journalists, activists file 27th petition vs terror law,” in INQUIRER.net (11 August 2020), https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1319719/lawyers-journalists-activists-file-27th-petition-vs-terror-law.

[10] See Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. by Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 7.

[11]  Charles de Montesquieu, The Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, trans. by Jehu Baker (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882), 279. 

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