Leading Articles

When the War on Drugs kills

In May last year President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in the Philippines, riding high on a wave of popular support, promising to wipe out the country’s drug problem. In a country used to broken political promises and chronic misgovernment, Duterte’s populist agenda seemed irresistible; 14 months on, his popularity endures.

The president promised a no-holds-barred approach to the drug problem. Instead of merely talking about a “War on Drugs”, he actually promised to fight it. He has been as good as his word. Since he took control, according to government sources, there have been more than 1.2 million drug users and 89,000 pushers who have surrendered, resulting in a 26 per cent reduction of the total drug market, and a 29 per cent drop in crime.

That sounds impressive. However, in the same period, according to the police, more than 3,400 people have been killed in anti-drug operations. In addition, there have also been 2,100 drug-related deaths, thanks to gang warfare. Those deaths at the hands of the police represent extrajudicial killings, people killed without due process, supposedly in self-defence. Just recently, the police shot 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos, and it is this death, currently under investigation, that has triggered an intervention by the Catholic Church.

Everyone should be against the consumption of illegal drugs. To take a substance such as crystal meth represents an action that cannot be reconciled with any vision of human flourishing. It constitutes an act of self-harm. As such, it is irrational, and given that we are called to live in accordance with reason, it represents a serious sin. This magazine, in accordance with the teaching of the Church, takes the view that recreational drug use is seriously wrong. The Catechism rightly condemns drug abuse in the chapter dealing with the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. Drug pushers are the merchants of death. As for drugs like marijuana, and other softer drugs, the difference is one of degree not kind.

While the evil of illegal drugs is not up for debate, the way governments deal with them is a matter for discussion. Can the extrajudicial killing spree that President Duterte has unleashed be justified in any way?

The answer must be negative. In simple terms, illegality is never to be fought by illegal means, and the rule of law is never to be upheld by breaking it. Last Sunday a statement from Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila was read in all churches after Holy Communion. In it the cardinal made clear that the way the drugs war is being fought in the Philippines targets the helpless and is wrong. The cardinal called for a national dialogue and reminded congregations that the scourge of drug addiction cannot be cured by force alone, but must depend on an effort by all sections of society.

The people of the Philippines have long had to live with politicians who make extravagant claims but deliver very little. The drugs war being waged by President Duterte may be an example of history repeating itself, to the detriment of democracy. As in the Philippines, so in the rest of the world. We have all in various ways been fighting the War on Drugs for a generation, and with a marked lack of success. President Duterte shows us one way not to go. But we still have to work out the best way to reduce illegal drug consumption and counter the power of the criminal gangs who supply such drugs. The national debate Cardinal Tagle has called for for needs to take place everywhere.

Hold the hammers

Our ancestors committed many crimes, not least the terrible collective crime of slavery. But that doesn’t necessarily justify the current vogue for demolishing statues. The craze has quickly spread beyond symbols of the Confederacy: as we report on page 10, a statue of St Junípero Serra in California has been defaced. This echoes what happened in New Orleans this May: after a debate over the removal of four Confederate monuments, the golden Joan of Arc statue in the French Quarter was graffitied.

Sometimes, a vague zeal for destruction can seem more central to these displays than a yearning for historical justice. Righting wrongs in the present requires hard thought and hard work, and can make us realise our own guilt. Breaking things is much easier.

In the history of statue destruction, Catholics have been both perpetrators and victims. In the ancient world, smashing pagan idols was one way to proclaim the triumph of Christ over the false gods of the world. In Giovanni d’Alemagna’s painting, St Apollonia is seen climbing a ladder propped against a pagan god, carrying a large hammer with a serious-looking metal head.

British Catholics, however, are more likely to associate statue-breaking with the tragedy of the Reformation, when sacrilege and blasphemy against Our Lady and the saints was carried out on a vast scale.

Christian history, then, reminds us that smashing statues has a perennial appeal; and that this appeal should be scrutinised carefully, since it does not always bring the best out of us.