Reflecting on the uneven texture of historical experience, the 20th century’s towering revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, remarked, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Far from a linear progression from one distinguishable epoch to another, the arc of history has often zigzagged, with major events suddenly compressed into a short interval of human experience. My first major encounter with this peculiar nature of history was almost exactly a decade ago, when I penned my first academic book. Still in my early 20s, I was so gripped by the concatenation of revolutionary upheavals across the Middle East that I felt morally and intellectually compelled to write my thesis on the origins and trajectory of the so-called “Arab Spring.”
Within months, age-old despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were crushed under the sweeping wave of popular uprisings that upended the cradle of civilizations. A decade later, however, what we are instead witnessing is a reverse wave of “counter-revolution.”
The China-originated pandemic has been an absolute nightmare for much of humanity. But it has also provided a perfect pretext for authoritarian consolidation by wily despots and their coterie of enablers.
Within a single week, both China and the Philippines have passed draconian national security laws, which could threaten, either outright or insidiously, decades-old freedoms. The ongoing authoritarian blitzkrieg across the region is nothing short of Lenin’s proverbial “weeks where decades happen.”
By adopting extremely amorphous definitions of “terrorism” and “public safety,” like-minded leaders have turned an existential crisis into political opportunity. The signing of a draconian anti-terror law by President Duterte should be seen within the broader context of what the German jurist Carl Schmitt described as a “state of exception,” where normal political rules no longer apply.
ABS-CBN’s controversial shutdown came just over a month after the President assumed emergency powers to ostensibly battle a public health crisis. A month later came Maria Ressa’s controversial conviction.
In between, dozens of netizens faced subpoenas and threat of imprisonment for expressing what appeared more like overzealous political critique and sloppy satire than deliberate acts of “misinformation.”
And just three months since the imposition of lockdown, which has effectively outlawed public demonstrations, we now have one of the most fraught anti-terror laws in the democratic world.
To be clear, we should support genuine efforts to counter terrorism and all threats to our national security. But that doesn’t mean we should blindly accept any law in the name of order.
As Harvard professors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky warned, don’t be fooled by the language of rule of law and public safety, since “Many government efforts to subvert democracy are ‘legal,’ in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts.” As the two academics warned in “How Democracies Die,” draconian laws “may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy” or overall political conditions.
To be fair, one could argue that our preexisting anti-terror legislations were perhaps a bit too restrictive, from heavy penalties on wrongful detention to extremely strict prohibitions on wiretapping and preventative detention of suspected terrorists based on real-time intelligence.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson and other advocates have pointed out that there are certain safeguards in the new law. Rommel Banlaoi, a leading security expert, told me, “If law enforcement officials are found guilty of violating human rights in the implementation of this law, the law also provides concomitant punishment of up to 10 years of imprisonment.”
It’s also true that other democracies such as the United States (on wiretapping) and Australia (on preventative detention) have more draconian anti-terror laws. But let’s not forget these are nations with robust democratic institutions, which ensure checks and balances against abuse of power.
While far from perfect, neither Australia nor the United States suffers from the profound levels of impunity that have bedeviled fledgling democracies. Moreover, one should also ask why the imposition of years-long martial law in Mindanao did not prevent the first-ever suicide bombings on Philippine soil.
Is this really about ensuring public safety and rule of law, or something else entirely? As the wiliest character in the “Game of Thrones,” Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, cynically put it, “Chaos is a ladder.”
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