By James Fenton
The New York Review of Books
One night in December, I was standing in heavy rain, under an umbrella, in a dark Manila alleyway, outside a house known to be a drug den, waiting with “the night shift,” the photographers and reporters on the crime beat, on the off chance of being shown upstairs to the scene of the killings. We knew the story in outline only: four men had been getting ready for a pot-smoking session on the second floor when a masked intruder burst in and shot them all dead. There was one witness, a sixteen-year-old boy, but he was said to be too shocked to speak.
Now the police were examining the upstairs room, while we examined the alleyway. There wasn’t much to it. Someone had scrawled on the wall two local synonyms for pot: dubie and chongkee. So this had been a potheads’ hangout. Now, for a while, it would belong to the SOCO—the scene of crime operatives—before the bodies were handed over to whichever firm of undertakers enjoyed the concession for this kind of work. There was an established routine in these matters.
A man came out of the building and stopped, seemingly on an impulse, as he passed by me. He was more carefully dressed than the rest of us. From the fact that he was accompanied by his own barangay policeman, I took him to be a local official, perhaps the barangay captain himself.* “Excuse me,” he said, in a tone that managed to be both urgent and fussy, “but, as a matter of information…as a matter of information, something terrible has happened here.” His face had a crumpled look that I recognized instantly from long ago—the look of a face that had seen something our faces were not designed to see: carnage, for instance.
“As a matter of information,” he repeated, as if the phrase were something he could lean on, when all other props had suddenly been kicked away, “as a matter of information, something terrible has happened in this country.” Then he made as if to go, so I was moved to thank him for taking time with me. And I turned toward the upstairs room. “Can you tell me,” I asked, “what has happened there?” He looked back with horror toward the scene he had clearly just left. He seemed about to use one word, then change his mind in order to frame the modish acronym that offended his natural fastidiousness. “EJK,” he spat it out, “EJK!” and left.
There are two chief kinds of carnage taking place here, these wet Manila nights. There is the “buy-bust” operation, in which the targeted criminal attempts to buy some drugs, only to find that he is dealing with undercover police. He panics and reaches for a weapon, a pistol perhaps or a kind of homemade shotgun. Before he can use it (so the familiar script reads) the police shoot him dead. There have been around two thousand of these buy-bust killings since the war on drugs under President Rodrigo Duterte began at the start of July. The dead are both pushers and users. If you’re a user, Duterte’s wisdom has it, then you’re also a pusher. And even if you aren’t a pusher, the users of the drug in question, “shabu” or crystal meth, very soon forfeit their claims to humanity. They lose their souls. The only thing to do with them is kill them.
Picture: VOCAL-NY (Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders) (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons