Philippine Daily Inquirer

Amok

- 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?

‘Juramentad­o’

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