Philippine Daily Inquirer - - OPINION - Michael L. Tan

“AMUCK” NOW ap­pears in English dic­tio­nar­ies to mean go­ing out of con­trol, usu­ally expressed as “run amuck.”

The En­carta Word English dic­tio­nary cites its round­about ori­gins: “Di­rectly or via Por­tugese am(o)luco ‘homi­ci­dally vi­o­lent Malay’ from Malay amuk ‘fight­ing fren­ziedly’.”

I am go­ing to use “amok,” which comes closer to its pro­nun­ci­a­tion in Malay. It is also “amok” that now ap­pears in UP’s Dik­siy­onary­ong Filipino, ac­knowl­edg­ing that the term has en­tered lo­cal us­age, as in tabloids oc­ca­sion­ally re­port­ing some­one as “ nag­amok,” usu­ally in a hostage-tak­ing in­ci­dent, as in the re­cent ter­ri­ble tragedy at the Luneta.

Al­though the word is now of­ten used with­out racial con­no­ta­tions, there will be cases where it car­ries the older as­so­ci­a­tion of an in­nate trait. The En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Med­i­cal An­thro­pol­ogy, pub­lished in 2004, de­scribes it as “a tem­po­rary state of phys­i­cally ag­gres­sive in­san­ity rel­a­tively com­mon in Malay pop­u­la­tions. In a sui­ci­dal at­tack, the amuck per­son at­tempts to maim or kill vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one present. Of­ten thought of as a cul­ture-bound syn­drome.”

“Cul­ture-bound syn­drome” is the tech­ni­cal term for ill­nesses or dis­or­ders that are as­so­ci­ated with cer­tain cul­tures. These syn­dromes, es­pe­cially amok, have con­no­ta­tions of some­thing be­ing al­most in­nate in cer­tain peo­ple. In the Philip­pines, it be­came as­so­ci­ated with the ju­ra­men­tado, where a Mus­lim goes on a seem­ingly sense­less mur­der­ous ram­page. The pat­tern is ex­actly the same as the Malay amok.

Yet the ac­counts of amok, whether in schol­arly an­thro­po­log­i­cal and psy­chi­atric jour­nals, or the cov­er­age in print and broad­cast me­dia, sug­gest these are not sud­den and tem­po­rary lapses in san­ity. They are in fact well planned, and very sim­i­lar to what hap­pens with re­li­giously mo­ti­vated sui­cide bombers.

Note that in Is­lam, sui­cide is con­sid­ered a very se­ri­ous sin de­serv­ing of eter­nal damna­tion. Yet, long be­fore sui­cide bombers came into vogue, it had a taken a new twist in the Malay re­gion, in­clud­ing the Philip­pines. The amok acted in re­sponse to per­ceived shame or hu­mil­i­a­tion, brought on the in­di­vid­ual or his com­mu­nity. There­fore to go on a ram­page, even if it meant even­tual death, was seen to be jus­ti­fied, with the oath even ad­min­is­tered by a lo­cal re­li­gious leader. Ju­ra­men­tado is ac­tu­ally a Span­ish word that means “some­one who takes an oath.”

For Western psy­chol­o­gists and psy­chi­a­trists, as well as Filipino and Malay health pro­fes­sion­als trained in the Western tra­di­tion, the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of amok is that of a mental dis­or­der, of­ten at­trib­uted to “low self-es­teem,” so that run­ning amok, with or with­out hostages, be­comes a way of seek­ing at­ten­tion.

Western­ers writ­ing about the amok tended to add on the racial com­po­nent, mak­ing it look like it was al­most ge­net­i­cally im­printed in the Malay, which would now in­clude Malaysians, In­done­sians and Filipinos. In ef­fect, amok be­came a form of racial den­i­gra­tion, sug­gest­ing that peo­ple of the Malay “race” were less men­tally sta­ble. In the Philip­pines, the per­cep­tion of the ju­ra­men­tado be­came part and par­cel of the dis­crim­i­na­tion against the “Moro” or Filipino Mus­lim.

I sug­gest a deeper anal­y­sis of amok. Whether the ju­ra­men­tado of old or Se­nior Insp. Rolando Men­doza at Luneta, what we see is a process that has been thought through, not a spon­ta­neous out­break of “in­san­ity.” Es­pe­cially in this case, Men­doza knew whom he was go­ing to tar­get, and what he would do.

Men­doza had re­ceived 17 awards for ex­em­plary per­for­mance as a po­lice­man, but was even­tu­ally dis­missed for one al­leged case of ex­tor­tion, a very se­ri­ous con­vic­tion by the Of­fice of the Om­buds­man that re­sulted in the for­fei­ture of re­tire­ment ben­e­fits. Like the ju­ra­men­tado of old, he was hu­mil­i­ated, shamed and there seemed to be no way to clear his name ex­cept through an ex­treme pub­lic “per­for­mance.”

Re­mem­ber how in 2007 Ar­mando Ducat took hostage 26 chil­dren and four teach­ers from his own day­care cen­ter, to pub­li­cize his rage against govern­ment cor­rup­tion and the lack of so­cial ben­e­fits for chil­dren. No one was harmed, but he was ar­rested and charged with il­le­gal de­ten­tion and il­le­gal pos­ses­sion of firearms. Par­ents of the hostaged chil­dren ap­pealed for his re­lease. He has been out on bail since 2008.

We need to look at how so­ci­ety it­self pushes peo­ple to run amok. When charged with graft and cor­rup­tion, the rich and pow­er­ful can let the cases drag for years, with the charges even­tu­ally dis­missed for lack of ev­i­dence. Men­doza was not well con­nected so “jus­tice” was swift (a few months from the charges to the con­vic­tion), with an ap­peal prob­a­bly seen as fu­tile.

If he had gone to peo­ple in the mass me­dia, his case would have been just one of many. There was no story, no drama. Tak­ing his griev­ances to Luneta, in a bus filled with Chi­nese tourists, was sure to draw at­ten­tion.

Per­haps it would have ended as the Ducat hostage-tak­ing in­ci­dent did, but here was the amok go­ing amok. When I found out about the in­ci­dent, it was al­ready early in the evening, 10 hours af­ter the drama started, and while very tense, it looked like Men­doza was still in a talk­ing mode. Ear­lier in the af­ter­noon, he had asked for food for the hostages, and gaso­line for the bus so air-con­di­tion­ing could con­tinue op­er­at­ing.

But the po­lice just had to ar­rest, with TV cam­eras grind­ing, Men­doza’s brother and an­other rel­a­tive. The treat­ment of the two men was rough, with women relatives wail­ing and shriek­ing as they tried to block the ar­rest. The po­lice ex­plained that Men­doza’s brother was armed, which makes you won­der again about how loose firearms are in our coun­try, the ul­ti­mate props for any­one plan­ning to go amok.

That hys­ter­i­cal drama was cer­tainly the trig­ger for Men­doza, adding more shame and hu­mil­i­a­tion not only upon him­self but his fam­ily. Even then, Men­doza clearly re­mained lu­cid, still able to strate­gize, shoot­ing at govern­ment troops as they ad­vanced on the bus un­til a sniper’s bul­let took him down.

The stereo­types around amok em­pha­size in­di­vid­ual mental dis­or­der, and, to some ex­tent, a “racial” dis­po­si­tion. There is noth­ing uniquely “Malay” or “Filipino” to all this, at least not in ge­netic terms, but yes, there might be el­e­ments of Filipino cul­ture and so­ci­ety that trig­ger amok: the lack of mech­a­nisms for re­dress­ing griev­ances amid a “mar­ket” driven now by mass me­dia, for the amok as pub­lic drama and spec­ta­cle, blood and gore.

Are we, per­haps, a nation run­ning amok?


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