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Pugilists won’t win the peace

“Write about Manny Pacquiao,” Val said to me on the morning of the last Pacquiao-Marquez showdown.

We were navigating streets emptied of avid adherents of the “Pambansang Kamao.” Val probably wished he too were parked in front of the TV set at home, instead of driving his wife Bang to brunch with her two opinionated friends. Val was also trying to be helpful. My readership, he felt, could use some expansion beyond the tiny circles of those who love or hate the Roman Catholic Church. Pacquiao might be of broader interest.

Not to his audience of three women, all unapologetically unconcerned about Representative Pacquiao’s career, in pugilism or in politics.  I remarked, with the contrarian edginess familiar to my close friends, that boxing is incompatible with Christian values, its goal being to batter the opponent until he (mostly he) can no longer get up. No love of neighbor there.

That position parallels another I hold, also contrarian, though I trust not as edgy: that “all-out war” is no solution to the conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

All-out war, like boxing, aims to batter the opponents until they can no longer get up, except that the damage is not limited to opponents. Noncombatants may suffer as much as combatants do, and in larger numbers. Whole villages in the Mindanao war zones, emptied by contests more deadly than a welterweight championship, bear wordless witness to the impact of war on the unarmed. On armed and unarmed alike, war leaves emotional scars that heal far more slowly than physical scars, if at all.

You can beat your foes in war until they cannot get up, but there is even less assurance than in a boxing match that they will accept defeat. War often begets war, perpetuating profound feelings of grievance that may one day resurge into renewed violence.

“War resolves nothing,” cried participants at a prayer rally in Marawi City in May 2000, amid the din of President Joseph Estrada’s all-out war against the MILF. That particular all-out war resolved nothing, although Estrada recently trotted it out as a success—an incredibly brazen claim given what we still face more than a decade later. These were the accomplishments of his all-out war: to kill and maim hundreds of combatants; to displace and traumatize hundreds of thousands of noncombatants; to sustain a sense of injustice among the Muslim community; to sustain the conflict for another 11 and a half years. Its main success was to boost Estrada’s sagging popularity ratings—and not for long.

I count our nation fortunate that our incumbent President has no intention of boosting his poll numbers at the expense of peace negotiations. His rejection of all-out war has probably cost him public opinion points. But he has held fast, even against slurs to his manhood, a stance that shows truer manhood than any pugilistic or military victory.

“It has often been said that impotence breeds violence,” wrote the philosopher Hannah Arendt, “and psychologically this is quite true.” That passage does not really imply that warmongers are compensating for a lack of virility, though the thought has crossed my mind. Arendt was speaking of the relationship between violence and political power. “Politically, loss of power tempts men to substitute violence for power … and violence itself results in impotence…. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”

A Jewish survivor of World War II, Arendt understood how, in cases in which danger was clear and present and the other side had no interest in compromise, violence might be the only rational response to violence. Nonetheless she believed that violence was no enduring solution.

Violence is an admission of weakness, of the failure of authority. That is not to say it cannot be used judiciously by the state for necessary short-term ends—to quell criminality, to protect the greater number—within the bounds of due process and human rights observance. But it is no exercise of strength. Nor does it create strength, because it cannot create lasting legitimacy.

Only inclusion and participation can create lasting legitimacy. If impotence breeds violence, the opposite may be true: empowerment can breed peace.  Conversely, if those who resort to violence as a response to their powerlessness are not empowered, there can be no peace. That seems to be the principle behind the President’s resolve, and that of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, to negotiate for a political solution, and to extend development and education assistance to rebel communities. Rather than a sign of weakness, this is an effort to build strength on both sides.

It is also an effort compatible with Christian values. For the last 15 years or so, the Catholic bishops of Mindanao and Sulu have largely supported the peace process in that island region, in solidarity with Muslim religious leaders. They have once more rejected the call for all-out war and insisted on a continuation of peace talks. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines endorses this position. And while radio commentators and bloggers castigated the President’s repudiation of all-out war as foolishness, Bro. Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus is Lord Movement lauded him for his “wisdom.”

If Manny Pacquiao would support the peace process with the same zeal with which he supports the CBCP’s all-out war against the reproductive health bill, I might almost take up Val’s suggestion. Almost.

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