The Philippines experiences vigilante justice in a failing society

The Philippines is experiencing a crisis of vigilante attacks on suspected drug dealers and others believed to be involved in criminal activity.   In a statement reminiscent of a certain candidate for the presidency in America, Rodrigo Duterte said so many criminals would be killed upon his assuming office that the fish of Manila Bay would become fat eating their bodies.  Since the 30th of June when Duterte took office, some 1,800 have died at the hands of law enforcement officers and ordinary people.

President Duterte claims that the number of drug users in his country is 3.7 million and blames them for a rise in violent crimes, while Dr. Bernardino Vicente, head of the National Center for Mental Health, puts that number at 1.8 million on the basis of recent survey.  As we always have to remind ourselves, correlation isn’t causation, but the number of incidents of violence has been on the increase in recent years, as has an increase in the drug trade and use, particularly of methamphetamine.  And as of 2014, the homicide rate in the Philippines was 18.56 per hundred thousand.

In other words, there is a problem.  But is a vigilante solution the right one?

Let’s acknowledge here that to many advocates of gun control, we gun owners are basically vigilantes ourselves.  Some thirteen million of us have carry licenses, and some more of us live in states that don’t require state permission to carry legally, so it’s reasonable to say that one in five gun owners have firearms with them when out in public at least part of the time.  The primary motivation is to be capable of effective self-defense if we experience a violent attack.

How is that different from a real vigilante?  Self-defense is a response to something happening right now.  By contrast, a vigilante goes after someone, not to stop an attack, but to impose the vigilante’s idea of justice outside the court system.  While self-defense is immediate, vigilantism is to correct a perceived wrong that has already occurred or to prevent one that is anticipated at some point in the future.

And therein lies the big problem with vigilantes.  I could be in error if I perceive my life to be in danger, but I’ll have no time to have built up a mass of opinion about things—in the moment.  Certainly, I won’t feel resentment, grievance, a desire for revenge, or other such emotions that require pondering and stewing.  The reason that we have courts in our modern democracies is that we figured out that letting offended people build up a full head of self-assessed righteousness is a poor way to administer justice.  Violent attacks need to be stopped right away, but when we have time, a trial is a more probable route to good outcomes.

We also have to consider the long-term effectiveness of threatening the lives of people who are addicted to drugs.  Drug addicts have already accepted—consciously or otherwise—a grave risk to their own lives in the taking of powerfully poisonous substances.  And those substances fundamentally alter the chemistry of the user’s brain, leaving rational decision making in many cases impossible.

The corruption in the Philippine government at various levels and the inability to find a civil solution to crime creates an understandable temptation to vigilantism, but the better answer would be to see addiction as a medical problem, one that will take time and a measured response to solve.  But before we feel safe and superior, we should remember that voices in our own nation are calling for similar action here, and that is not an answer that a free society can ever allow itself to adopt.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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