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It was a bloody April.

The assassination on April 22 of human rights activist Bernardino Patigas in Escalante City, Negros Occidental, should shock us on several counts. First was the brutality of the killing: Patigas was shot in the leg by the gunman and, after he fell from his motorcycle, shot again in the head. Second, Patigas was 72 years old.

Finally, the killing took place in Escalante City where, on Sept. 18, 1985, some 5,000 people rallied in front of the City Hall there to commemorate the declaration of martial law and to protest violence in their province. Paramilitary forces fired on the crowd, killing at least 20. Patigas was among the survivors of that rally - only to be gunned down three decades later.

Earlier in April,14 farmers from Canlaon City and Manjuyod and Santa Catalina towns, all in Negros Occidental, were killed. The military said they were communists and 'nanlaban' (fought back).

The Escalante massacre in 1985, in the twilight of the Marcos era, triggered widespread protests. The 2019 killings have generated only muted public responses.

Are we becoming desensitized as a nation?

Psychologists describe how we usually respond strongly to initial positive or negative stimulus, but when the stimulus is repeated often, our response becomes weaker, even reaching the point of extinction, meaning no response at all. This process is called desensitization.

It's important to look at the possible reasons for our desensitization to violence, because the perpetrators of violence are monitoring our responses. Desensitization emboldens the assassins to impunity.

Conversely, we've seen how, in August 2017, when the 'tokhang' killings in the war on drugs reached an all-time high, including teenage victims, public protests did result in Mr. Duterte ordering a pullback on the operations. But, as public concern over violence once again decreased, we've seen a resumption of the killings.

The challenge for human rights advocates is to sensitize people by getting them to 'feel' the violence, even if they themselves don't actually experience or witness it.

We presume then that the 'trick' is to show the bloodiest photographs or depictions of violence, and to some extent this might work. We certainly can use more media coverage of violence.

Still, that coverage is not necessarily going to be just bloody photos, which may not make that much of a difference in our context. Even before the Duterte administration, we have had the highest homicide rate among countries in East and Southeast Asia, and in our urban poor areas, where most of the 'tokhang' killings have taken place, violence has been part of everyday reality for years now.

There is, too, the danger of overkill. When depictions of violence are too bloody, too shocking, people turn away, almost instinctively.

More effective would be photographs as well as stories with human interest angles-for example, families of the victims explaining how the deaths affected their everyday lives. One powerful photograph that hit me recently was of a group of urban poor children sitting helplessly on the pavement with a pet dog. They had been rounded up by the police. People felt for the children: How could the police do that, including releasing their photographs to media without protection of the children's identities?

People need to be able to relate to the violence, to be able to feel their own vulnerability: That child could have been my child.

We need to feel anger, but anger is not sustainable, and could even turn inward and consume the victim, rather than the perpetrator of the violence. Moreover, an angry crowd or rally makes potential sympathizers turn away, hastening the desensitization process.

I also worry that we might not even be caring about violence because we have been deconditioned. Patients confined to the bed for a long time, without exercise, may end up not being able to walk. We have become cynical, wondering if change is at all possible. We have also drawn the line between 'us' and 'them,' because we are taught, like the soldiers and the police, to look at 'them' as drug addicts, communists or, worst, 'the poor' who are not worth caring for. Dehumanization makes desensitization easier.

A last tactic used by the purveyors of violence is to stretch out the investigations, the court hearings. In the case of the Escalante massacre of 1985, a fact-finding committee ordered the government to indemnify the victims' families. Not a single centavo was ever given. As for the assassins, three low-ranking policemen were imprisoned, then released on parole.
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Publication:Philippines Daily Inquirer (Makati City, Philippines)
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:May 1, 2019
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