In the 1950s, the United States Senate was the venue for anti-communist witch hunts conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The senator whipped up public hysteria and fed on Cold War paranoia by alleging the existence of a massive communist infiltration of the US government and such institutions as Hollywood. Ordinary citizens were hailed to the Senate, there to be humiliated and bullied by the senator in full view of media and the public. In its wake, names and reputations of decent citizens were destroyed.
Only one man dared stand up against McCarthy. He was the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, and he said these immortal lines: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.”
In the 1960s, in the midst of protests over rising prices, growing foreign control of the economy, and infringement on basic rights, local authorities undertook a campaign of “red-baiting.” All those who spoke out and marched against social iniquities – students, journalists, teachers, unionists, and even established politicians who shared common cause with the aggrieved – were labelled communists or communist sympathizers. The authorities whipped up anti-communist hysteria, infecting the public with a fear of an imminent communist takeover. Legitimate demands were denigrated and nationalists were demonized. For many observers of Philippine history, there was no resistance to the imposition of martial law in 1972 because of the Marcos regime’s success in feeding the public’s fear of communists.
It has been more than 30 years since martial rule ended and democracy reinstalled by the people at EDSA. Ideas and causes considered controversial – even dangerous – in the 1960s are now universally celebrated, and included in our Constitution and the laws of the land.
And yet we have a general, the spokesperson of a government task force against communism, whose mindset is clearly frozen in the ideological wars of the 1960s. A cold warrior who is out of touch with present-day realities, who brooks no dissent, and who does not see the need to render obeisance to the principles of our Constitution.
He has called out several female celebrities for being alleged tools of supposed communists, even warning one of them that she may meet the same fate of a female rebel who was killed in battle. This general manages to do several things at once, all of them reprehensible. He belittles the gains of women over the years, he insinuates that these celebrities do not possess the mental faculties to know that they are being used, and he bullies them in the hope that they will keep quiet.
But more disturbing is this general’s disregard for the basic principles of our Constitution. He is in effect saying that there are certain sectors of our society who are not entitled to Constitutional rights, and are guilty by mere accusation. He is signalling forces allied to this task force and its cause that since these sectors have no such rights, they are legitimate targets. By denying these persons their very humanity, he is inviting measures that are outside the bounds of the law.
The general needs to be reminded that society and our mores have changed dramatically since the 1960s. We have become more open to diverse ideas. We welcome open discourse. People are now more tolerant, articulate, and critical. That is not a crime.
Perhaps the general did not anticipate the pushback from the celebrities and their supporters. Perhaps he has been accustomed to red-tagging ordinary citizens – the human rights lawyer, the journalist, the peasant or community organizer who mysteriously disappear after being tagged by authorities. But even after being publicly admonished by the Defense Secretary for making unfounded allegations, the general is apparently set on pursuing his witch hunt.
Remember that this general is part of a task force with a proposed budget of P19 billion in 2021. This budget, which is larger than the budgets of several line departments, is not only a budget for red tagging as some critics assert, but also a budget for intimidation and fear mongering.
Ideas have the potential to change the world, for good or bad. But one fights ideas with ideas, in the space provided by democracy and its institutions. You do not fight an idea, and expect to defeat it, with force and intimidation.