The downward trail
Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte was riding high on his seemingly unstoppable popularity bandwagon when, without any warning or premonition, he suddenly went careening downhill, and his entire world seemed to tumble upside down. The slip looked like no more than a “banana peel,” but it seemed a perfect demonstration of Murphy’s law, “if anything can go wrong, it will.” Its consequences seemed global. Observers are still waiting to see what Duterte will do to recover from this fall.
A video clip of Duterte’s April 12 speech at the Amoranto Stadium in Quezon City showed him talking about a 36-year-old Australian lay missionary who was gang-raped and killed by inmates inside the Davao prison in 1989 before the police swooped in. He said the victim was as beautiful as an “American movie star,” and it angered him that she had been gang raped, but he said “the mayor (meaning himself) should have been the first (to violate her).”
The scandal worldwide
The video has gone viral worldwide. It has been watched by multitudes n Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and other countries in Western Europe. In the United States, the Filipino-American community has had a field day discussing it. The Washington Post headline said, “Leading Philippine presidential contender—Gang Rape victim ‘so beautiful’ he wishes he had been first.”
At home, various websites have pilloried Duterte; no less than the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, after watching the video, tweeted: “Judge for yourself if this is the right choice. I will keep my personal judgment to myself. This video can help.”
All of Duterte’s political rivals, the Australian Embassy, and various public commentators have condemned him for his performance. Vice President Jejomar C. Binay, LP standard bearer Mar Roxas and the constitutionally questionable Grace Poe Llamanzares were unforgiving in their invectives. The Left-leaning women’s group Gabriela, which had earlier switched camp from the constitutionally questionable Mrs. Llamanzares to Duterte has asked that their candidate publicly apologize.
Which costs more?
Apparently Gabriela believes it would cost him nothing to apologize, while it could cost him everything if he failed or refused to apologize. But “this is how men talk,” Duterte has explained, and at press time TIME magazine was reported to have come out with an essay in his defense, adopting that very same line, “This is how men talk.” TIME’s entry into this debate is most interesting because of its historic role in “watching” Philippine presidential elections. From the time of Ramon Magsaysay up to B. S. Aquino 3rd, favorable articles in TIME magazine usually presaged change in the Philippine presidency.
Finally, Duterte said sorry “in general,” if he had “offended others,” but he would not formally apologize to any particular group which was demanding it. Despite the firestorm, none of Duterte’s adversaries have been able to put their fingers on his real offense. They have condemned him for his failure to show “enough respect” for women, and for his “trivialization of rape,” as the Australian ambassador in Manila has put it. But none of them have put it the way a young millennial friend of mine has put it.
A millennial viewpoint
For this young friend, Duterte’s unforgivable offense was that instead of being revolted by the brutal rape and murder of the young, innocent and helpless missionary, and being filled with an intense passion to seek justice for one who may have died a martyr for her faith, this particular officer of the law was consumed with necrophilia, with the animal desire for sex with the dead, and that he thought he could still joke about it.
There is no telling how Duterte’s “true believers” have been affected by all this. There are those who will continue to resent any adverse criticism of their candidate, and threaten such critics with hints of violence. There are others on the other hand who feel genuinely saddened that so monstrous a fallout could result from a single stupid remark, which was probably intended to draw a cheap laugh from a motley crowd.
They feel genuinely saddened that as a result of this stupid slip, his presidential rivals who were previously trailing him in the propaganda surveys could eat up his earlier lead, giving them a chance to overtake him in the propaganda “surveys.” Already Roxas is saying he will become “the flavor of the month” by the 9th of May, and Binay is saying he will lead his closest rival, whoever he or she is, by four million votes.
This is reminiscent of Aquino’s famous line in 2010 that he would lead his closest rival by five million votes, except that he was going to be cheated and would have to stage “people power” to claim the victory that was his. In which case, Smartmatic’s precinct count optical scan (PCOS) voting machine intervened, and gave him the presidency.
The moral high ground
But what truly saddened Duterte’s “true believers,” my millennial friend points out, is that Duterte must now yield the moral “high ground” to opponents who, until this rape remark happened, had lain at the bottom of the moral pit. This is cruel and unusual punishment, she says. And it is self-inflicted. A lot of factors had brought Duterte to where he was before this fallout; it was entirely on his own account that he brought this situation to himself. This is he needs to apologize. To refuse to do so will not only be a crime, as Talleyrand says, but a mistake.
It could prop up the chances of Grace Poe Llamanzares, and that could be a prescription for chaos. For despite the unexplained decision of nine Supreme Court justices to declare her a qualified presidential candidate, far too many Filipinos are not prepared to put up with this former American citizen of no known biological parentage, and with an American husband and three American children to boot, running for President of the Philippines.
Should such a one, for any reason and by any means whatsoever, get “elected,” her term is likely to bring back the season of coup attempts that dogged the Cory Aquino administration from 1986 to 1992, just because of the wide perception that she was not legitimately elected president. If elected despite all her constitutional infirmities, Mrs. Llamanzares may not be able to count on the loyalty of her own troops and may have to seek protection from the US Seventh Fleet and the EDCA forces inside the Philippine bases.
Can he be saved?
Is there any hope then of righting this terrible wrong, and making Duterte still a viable candidate?
This is the most compelling concern of those who are particularly terrified of the prospect of the “nuisance candidate” emerging as the first probable beneficiary of this incident. I do not know the answer to this question, but I will draw from Biblical history for some possible illumination.
In the second book of Samuel, we read the story of King David who committed adultery with Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of Uriah the Hittite, and got her pregnant. In order to possess her completely, the King sent her husband to the front, so that he would be killed. After his death, the King married Bathsheba. David’s sin so gravely displeased God, who had favored him from his youth when he slew the Philistine Goliath. But David was a man of God, and for his great sin, he offered great penance. At the advice of the Prophet Nathan, who came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba, he pleaded for the Lord’s forgiveness.
In Psalm 51, David cries out to God, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your merciful love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my offense. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know what evil I have done, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, and you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
This worked for David, and for everyone else who ever asked sincerely for the Lord’s forgiveness. It worked for the Good Thief, too, whom Christ first met on the Cross at Golgotha, and who said to him without the benefit of an introduction, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And to him the Crucified Christ promised, “You shall be with me in Paradise.”
In this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, the gates of forgiveness are wide open to the biggest sinners among us who will ask for it. Only sincere contrition and penance is needed, God never fails to forgive, never withholds forgiveness. It is in forgiving others that we best begin to imitate the love and mercy and goodness of God. We too become a forgiving people, who cannot and will not withhold from others the forgiveness we receive even before we ask for it.
But if we want to be forgiven, we must ask for it. Duterte must ask for it. He must not give in to any false pride. He, like all of us, has nothing to be proud of. As St. Paul says, he hasn’t got anything he has not received. The Fallen Angels fell because of pride; they thought themselves to have become like God, so they said, “I will not serve.” No one who wants to serve the merest needs of men can afford to say this. This is not the model to emulate. Our only mission in life is to love and to serve. We must apologize when we are wrong, and, sometimes, even when we believe we are right.