Human Rights

Name-calling

The very few among those I know who bothered tuning in to alleged President Arroyo’s State of the Nation Address last July 24 were one in saying that the SONA sounded like Arroyo’s statements apparently were meant to show her breadth of knowledge of Philippine geography and nothing else.

What stuck out like a frigging sore thumb, however, was her lavish praise to Gen. Jovito Palparan, who took time out of his busy butchering schedule to attend Arroyo’s address.

Sa ganitong mga proyekto, palalakasin natin ang ekonomiya ng mga barangay at lalawigan. And we will end the long oppression of barangays by rebel terrorists who kill without qualms, even their own. Sa mga lalawigang sakop ng 7th Division, nakikibaka sa kalaban si Jovito Palparan. Hindi siya aatras hanggang makawala sa gabi ng kilabot ang mga pamayanan at maka-ahon sa bukang-liwayway ng hustisya at kalayaan.”

I never would have thought I’d see the day when the words “Jovito Palparan” and “nakikibaka” would be said in the same sentence, underestimating Arroyo’s capacity to lose all sense of irony.

Lost, too, is the fact that it is not the rebels who are sowing terror in Central Luzon now, but Palparan himself. Stories abound about how difficult it is to go to the barangays in the region without cedulas. Palparan’s troops are said to be reigning in on individuals who walk the streets without cedulas. A TV news item last week interviewed a middle-aged man who was forced to “live” in the barangay hall for fear of being arrested after losing his cedula and being unable to buy one (prices of cedulas had since jacked up from P10 to P30 due to high demand).

***

I may be wrong, but I do think this is the first time I actually heard Arroyo refer to the NPA as “rebel terrorists”. The AFP, however, has been using “Communist-Terrorists” to refer to the guerrillas for years. They also refer to communism as a “godless ideology”.

This got me to thinking about the role of labels in abetting war. It is, after all, much easier to hate the enemy if you call them names that no one would want to be called. I do not think, for instance, the members of Al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein’s army wanted to be called “terrorists”.  Nor did the governments of Iran and North Korea want to be part of “axis of evil”, as US President Bush once called them.

I don’t know about the military culture in the AFP, but the US troops, to which the AFP is much indebted, in their wars called their enemies much worse than calling them terrorists. 

Recent reportage on the war in Iraq has the US soldiers calling their enemies “towelheads”, “ragheads” or “camel jockeys”. During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese were called “dinks”, “gooks” or “slopes”.  Michael Herr’s journalistic account of the Vietnam war in his book “Dispatches”, offers an etymological study of the word “dink”:

A bird colonel, commanding a brigade of the 4th Infantry Division: ‘I’ll bet you always wondered why we call ’em Dinks up in this part of the country. I thought of it myself. I’ll tell you, I never did liek them hearing them called Charlie [radio code for the Viet Cong]. See, I had an uncle named Charlie, and I liked him, too. No, Charlie was just too damn good for the little bastards. So I just thought, What are they really like? and I came up with rinky-dink. Suits ’em just perfect. Rinky-Dink. ‘Cept that was too long, so we cut it down some. And that’s why we call ’em Dinks.'”

As with calling the NPAs “terrorists” (bereft of any proof of their “terrorism”), the US soldiers calling their enemies “dinks”, “gooks” or “ragheads” would allow them not to feel empathy towards the Vietnamese and Iraqis. Normally, in war, as  Joanna Burke of the LA Times once noted, “Men in the trenches were much more liable to feel pity for their opponents. After all, front-line soldiers knew that the men in the opposing trenches were cold and hungry, cannon-fodder just like themselves.”

By calling them names that are less than human, the soldiers are lead to believe there is nothing wrong in harming their enemies and not respecting their human rights.

It was Muhammad Ali, the consummate American hero and anti-war advocate, who once famously articulated such empathy with his country’s enemies, committing the sin of designating to the Viet Cong human traits like kindness and respect for others, especially those of other ethnic origins.

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali once said, when asked to comment on the Vietnam War. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”

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