In the rhetoric of vigilantism, the enemies are not citizens. They are caricatures, symbols, phantoms that lurk outside the circle of a yellow streetlight: the weeds, the criminals, the low-lifes, the thieves, the drug dealers. Their individual stories are irrelevant in the fight for peace and order. What matters is the drawing of the line, black against white, good against evil, the heroes against the villains.
It is a shootout, and victory goes to the man with the biggest posse. There is no death squad to avenge the murders of drug dealers and smugglers in Davao. There are no sad stories of the mothers who discover their sons murdered in empty parking lots. The fact that a 9-year-old suspected thief named Jenny Boy Lagulos was found with 22 stab wounds may affect some, but in the battle against crime, his death is the death of an enemy combatant.
Any just crusade demands the naming of its enemies. In a democracy, it means a trial in a public court. It demands evidence and affidavits, context and intent, the right to a defense and the claim to an appeal before men and women accountable to the rule of law. The target of a death squad is always a man unable to defend himself against allegations, a man deprived of his day in court, sentenced by an arbitrary voice that is judge, jury and executioner all at once.
It is why the idea of a death squad fails its very purpose. The core of vigilantism is the certainty that the enemy is always guilty, but there is no certainty of guilt once due process is absent. It is difficult to believe a single mayor, a single police chief, a single man untrained in the ways of the law can determine guilt or innocence after a day’s surveillance resulting from a complaint to a public hotline.
Yet the decision is made, and the penalty is execution. It is a punishment that is absolute, without recourse or appeal, without space for error or the opportunity for reform, sustained in spite of the fact this is a country that bans the death penalty. Justice demands that punishments fit the crime, and yet there is one punishment for the targets of a death squad. A laptop thief, a drug dealer, a pickpocket, a rice smuggler – all of them are punished in the same final, irrevocable way.
The argument against death squads is not that they are prone to abuse. It is that their existence is abuse in itself.