A SOJOURNER'S VIEW: The bystander. By Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR

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The Reader is but one of the films that have tackled the Holocaust in all its tragic dimensions.  There were many that came before: The Schindler's List, The Pianist, A Beautiful Life, Charlotte Gray and Amen, to name just a fewMost of these films are award-winning as the dramatic scenes afford the filmmakers and their actors the opportunity to express the most basic of human emotions.

Film is not the only art form that has mined the Holocaust material. Novels after novels, stories after stories have been written and published about what the Jews went through. Art galleries and museums throughout the world today have art pieces inspired by those tragic events. 

But as art imitates life so also life imitates art.

Such a thought came to mind as I found myself trying to be updated as to the goings on in Davao City in the week that began with the last days of March and ended with the first days of April.  I refer to the presence of Chair Leila de Lima and her entourage from the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in my hometown, Davao City as they bravely set up a public inquiry into the unexplained killings of more than 800 civilians, including a sizeable number of young adults (185) minors (45). Tambayan, a local NGO, has done a body count; from 1998 till now, a total of 888 persons have been summarily killed.

According to those in civil society who have monitored the killings, it is a shadowy vigilante group, ultimately referred to these days as the Davao Death Squads (DDS), is believed to be responsible for these killings. Those killed purportedly were people with criminal records.

The honorable Mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte and the local police claim that the deaths are due to gang wars and not perpetuated by a serial-killing death squad.

Chair de Lima has not minced words in speaking about this phenomenon which has spread from Davao City to the adjacent cities of Tagum and Digos. She has referred to these killings as "one of the most audacious violations against the right to life in our times!"  When the local government officials made their claims regarding a favorable peace and order situation in the city, she couldn't help but point out the irony: "If it were so peaceful and orderly, had it not occurred to anyone how paradoxical it is to make such a claim while killings remain rampant? It is completely incongruous to say it is peaceful and orderly when vigilantism is so commonplace, so pedestrian, it is almost a way of life around here."

She quite frankly stated what she thought was most alarming about the situation in Davao City; for her, it is "the growing culture or mentality of public acceptance of the executions… (which) is worse than apathy and indifference.”

Ten years have passed since the first killings attracted the attention of a few people among the citizenry, especially the relatives of the victims. The body count began in 1998 and the counting continues up until today. In fact, on the second day of the CHR hearing in the city, the body of Dernilo Lopez San Juan, another victim was found on a hill just outside the downtown area. 

Thanks to the efforts of the Coalition Against Extrajudicial Summary executions (CASE) that included the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, NGOs,  church groups and human rights advocates there have been some attention drawn to this appalling phenomenon.

But in a city with roughly 1.3 million inhabitants, those who constitute the membership of this Coalition could hardly total a thousand individuals, or less than 0.1% of the total population. So is Chair de Lima correct when she refers to the citizenry's public acceptance of these executions?

For there is, indeed, some truth to this allegation.  Ten years have passed, the killings have continued unabated. But until the CHR came to town with is Chair acting like Gary Cooper of High Noon, the ripples of the advocacy of CASE hardly made it to the national news. This despite the heroic attempts of CASE to get the Davao City citizenry to care about the killings taking place right in their neighborhoods.

How are we to explain this phenomenon of the great majority of Davaoenos not caring enough to do something to stop the killings?  What sociological theories can help us understand this phenomenon given that the same citizenry earlier was known to be quite liberal, even progressive. During political exercises such as elections, those who win in this city were of the opposition.

During the height of martial rule, it was in Davao City where activist groups were quite active.  Many pioneering initiatives in expressing dissent arose in the streets of this city.  

How come this libertarian tradition seemed to have self-destructed since the late 1990s?  What brought about not just apathy and indifference to the DDS shadow killings, but what could be interpreted as a silent acceptance of the validity of suchkillings?  How come no one has the audacity to refer to Davao City as a city with its own  killing fields?

Which is why my mind wonders to The Reader.  Perhaps there is an explanation here.

In a situation where a particular kind of killing (read: then it was the Jews, now it is those with criminal records) is seen as necessary, even useful for the sake of a greater good (read: then it was for Hitler's vision, now it is for the sake of progress in a city aspiring towards global cosmopolitanism), most would rather look away than confront the evil that is not yet seen as monstrous.

The great majority of the Germans – and later on even French and other Europeans who were drawn to the Nazi dream – acted as bystanders when the Jews were being picked up from their homes, forced to take the trains that brought them to Poland and elsewhere where the gas chambers waited.  They had ways to explain their stance. It was only later when they were confronted with the consequences of having stood there as bystanders.

In Davao City today, there are so many bystanders.

I, too, will have to face my own culpability as having been a bystander. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including "To be poor and obscure," and "Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures," writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner's Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)

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