The image was that of a man – a war correspondent-turned-senator – face down on the tarmac. Murdered.
Next to him lay the lifeless body of the supposed assassin, killed almost instantly by Aviation Security Command like they knew beforehand the assassination would happen.
It was the early afternoon of Aug. 21, 1983. For what it is worth in hindsight, some commentators swore that the senator had, in a manner of speaking, “plotted” his own murder to spark an uprising. It was the only rationale for his return, knowing his life was in grave danger.
If true, although I doubt it, that Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. dove wide-eyed into his own death in order to end the martial law regime, the plan didn’t go well. It took another three years before a largely apathetic public gathered the courage to stage a popular “uprising” that eventually toppled the former dictator.
The questions Ninoy Aquino wrestled with back in the 1980s were the same questions we are wrestling with today. Hardly anything has changed. It is, however, clear that many today couldn’t care less.
Three years before he was killed, at the convocation of the Asia Society in New York City, Aquino said in a speech:
“I have asked myself many times: Is the Filipino worth suffering, or even dying, for? Is he not a coward who would readily yield to any colonizer, be he foreign or homegrown? Is a Filipino more comfortable under an authoritarian leader because he does not want to be burdened with the freedom of choice?”
The questions Ninoy Aquino wrestled with back in the 1980s were the same questions we are wrestling with today. Hardly anything has changed. It is, however, clear that many today couldn’t care less. Today, ang mahalin ang Pilipinas is a case for schadenfreude, or a joke that has lost its punchline somewhere between hope and a cheap gag show.
The word “still” doesn’t even belong in the query because it raises a more complicated question: are Filipinos worth dying for in the first place? Maybe Ninoy was wrong in assuming that we were worth the bother – as the recent elections have shown.
Many assume that the value of a heroic act should be equal, at least, to some degree to the quality of a people to whom it is offered. With the word “still” added to the original query, it becomes now a reinvestigation of that principle, a problem Aquino never saw coming.
Dying for a person or a cause much larger than ourselves has always been the litmus test of one’s convictions. But what about one’s empathy? The Good Book lays down the parameters of heroic courage: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). As for enemies and idiots, the Bible was largely silent save for that rather uncanny directive of turning the other cheek.
The present generation would rather ask: “Are you worth living for?”
And in a country where the lives of good men and women are pushed ever closer to the edge each day, it’s almost as if we are being conditioned to look at death, sacrificial or what-have-you, as another cheap shot at escape. Heroic death somehow loses its real value as we all strain to stay alive.
This reminds me of Johnny Depp’s movie, The Libertine, where his character, the second Earl of Rochester John Wilmot, saying, “All men would be cowards if they only have the courage.”
So, are Filipinos worth dying for in the first place? This begs another question: what measures do we use to gauge a people’s worth, and who or what dictates these measures? How do we compute a nation’s value, or appraise its merits in order for us to know if they are deserving of heroic sacrifice or not? Using our own lives as a moral gauge may not be a good idea.
Is there any chance we are looking at it from the wrong angle? Should value be placed in the object of empathy for heroic sacrifice to have merit? Isn’t it true that compassion is better served unconditional? Isn’t sacrifice made all the richer when offered in the name of one who didn’t deserve it?
Those we call heroes hardly placed any conditions to the sacrifices they were all too willing to offer in the service of a people. José Rizal himself admitted to the Filipinos’ indolence, a character flaw he believed was more imposed than natural. That was why he also said, “Filipinos have not always been what they are.” Rizal believed that the Filipinos’ faults were merely bloated accusations that do not hold water.
Isn’t sacrifice made all the richer when offered in the name of one who didn’t deserve it?
Rizal’s own death on the morning of Dec. 30, 1896 was proof that Filipinos were worth dying for, notwithstanding the flaws.
In fact, the 27-year-old murdered activist Lean Alejandro’s words, “The struggle for freedom is the next best thing to actually being free,” ignored the idea that the public must be worth something to be deserving of any heroic sacrifice. To struggle to be free, next to being essentially free, was enough.
But heroes are a cut above the rest, you argue, and aptly so. That’s why they do what they do best – give up their lives for the deserving and the undeserving. In contrast, the everyday enslaved Filipino who labor to stay alive in a system designed to ignore his rights, if not immediately kill him, may not be all that enthusiastic to sacrifice his life for a bunch of cowards and fools.
With the recent elections proving that there are millions out there who are not even worth a singkong duleng, much more one’s life, the case is closed.
Indeed, heroes are a hard act to follow.
But we’re not all called to be a José Rizal, or Gabriela Silang, or Lean Alejandro. To think of ourselves as messiahs would be nothing short of delusional. But in dark times such as these, courage must count for something. And if in these dark days our lives were to be demanded of us – to keep loved ones safe, to protect human dignity, to bless our freedom with a sprinkling of life-giving liquid – the decision about who to offer our lives for will have to come from us and us alone.
We don’t need to save a damned world to walk where even angels fear to tread. Our humble individual struggle to seize our own right to speak out against the lies, outside of rescuing a whole nation, is worth it all.