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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 25 & 26 , June 17 & June 24, 2023

Why do some Filipinos support police shoot-to-kill policy? | Danielle P. Ochoa

Saturday 17 June 2023


by Danielle P. Ochoa *

11 June 2023

People’s moral reasoning involved making sense of who the agents and victims are and their perceived intentions.

The Philippine Government’s war on drugs has been described [1] as “large-scale extrajudicial violence”, with more than 12,000 people [2] reportedly being killed since its introduction in 2016

The true numbers are estimated to be up to three times that and continue [3] to grow today.

Despite this, many Filipinos have expressed support [4] for the policy.

It was introduced as a key policy [5] under former president Rodrigo Duterte with many families, mostly from poor backgrounds, left without answers [6] on why their family members were killed.

Justice remains unlikely for victims and their families under current president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who declared the administration would cut off [7] contact with the International Criminal Court after it rejected his appeal to stop investigating.

Many of these killings were carried out under what the policy called “Project Tokhang” — officially described [8] by the Philippine National Police as “the conduct of house-to-house visitations to persuade suspected illegal drug personalities to stop their illegal drug activities”.

Its actual implementation has involved thousands of deaths and other human rights violations.

One way to understand why a morally questionable policy can gain such popularity is by considering how people make sense [9] of harm differently.

Research [10] analysing Filipino young adults’ moral justifications for the policy shows how the information which is available, accessible and relevant to them can be used to justify their position.

It found people’s moral reasoning involved making sense of who the agents and victims are and their perceived intentions.

Those who supported the policy blamed drug war victims for being guilty of crimes and bringing harm to themselves and others, echoing Duterte’s comments [11] on criminality and the dehumanisation of drug users.

They also saw the police as potentially vulnerable victims acting in self-defence according to protocols, reflecting Duterte’s administration’s widely-circulated [12], but unsupported claims, that those who were killed were suspects who fought or resisted arrest — creating a grey area justifying the use of deadly force.

In cases where the killing was clearly intentional and lacked signs of resistance, those in support of tokhang portrayed perpetrators as acting independently of the policy, such as corrupt rogue policemen [13] and unidentified vigilantes [14]. Those who disagreed with the policy highlighted the vulnerability of those killed by the police in drug operations, drawing from messages on the disproportionate victimisation [15] of the poor and social circumstances [16] which lead to drug addiction.

They magnified the policy’s harmfulness, emphasising the government’s alleged intentions by allowing the police to actively cause harm. They also recognise the innocent and vulnerable victims beyond the supposed targets of police operations, including children [17] and family [18] members.For the most part though, people’s positions were not so clear-cut.

In many cases, ambiguity was made possible by grey areas created by two crucial factors.

Seeing the policy, and by extension, the administration and the police as having good intentions [19] and benefits for rehabilitating drug users and maintaining peace and security. And a lack of clarity about the circumstances surrounding individual killings.

So when the intentions are made out to be good and the cause of harm is unclear, it becomes more difficult to condemn the policy outright.

While the study focused on a limited range of respondents and a distinct issue in one country, these patterns can resonate across different contexts and help understand how people make sense of policies and policing.

People draw from, combine and reconstruct messages about victims and perpetrators of harm to come to their own moral conclusions and justifications. But people’s ability to produce different positions also depends on the accessibility and relevance of these different messages based on individuals’ characteristics and context.

When these messages are more accessible and people have more opportunities to express their position, they can adopt positions more consistently and easily.

The challenge then is to find ways for messages consistent with a just society to multiply and gain more traction. More avenues for respectful deliberation overall would hopefully contribute to better discussions beyond echo chambers [20].

* (Author: Danielle P. Ochoa is an associate professor at the University of the Philippines, Diliman Department of Psychology. She is currently the secretary of the National Association for Sikolohiyang Pilipino. | This research was funded by the University of the Philippines Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs Local Faculty Fellowship and the Philippine Social Science Council Research Award Program. The author declares no conflict of interest)

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