GROWING up in a rural area, I would tag along as relatives tended to farm tasks. I particularly looked forward to harvesting coconuts for copra. Sometimes, a trail had to be cut through thick grass and I learned that it was called galas in Sinebuano. To galas also meant to set a clearing that would serve as a boundary marker. In any case, I came to refer to these as taggalas, when I could roam around and enjoy the smell of cut and crushed grass and felled saplings.

Rather than destruction, taggalas to me smelled of green and fresh and promised adventure. The scent entered nostrils and filled lungs and also clung to clothes, such that it was hard to deny where one had been for most of the day.

Forty years later, in the name of cutting through criminality and corruption, the Philippines is going through a taggalas of some sort which has also become taglagas, a season of felling.

Many have fallen in the past two years: those suspected of being involved in illegal drugs, including children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time; crusading priests; and recently, local government officials allegedly engaged in corruption and other criminal acts. It seems superfluous to cite a number in one’s writings because by the time it sees publication, the figure would have increased.

The sheer number of those violently killed, the groups they represent (urban poor, youth and children, religious, public officials, among others), and the reality that not much has been done to pursue those responsible for their deaths should already be a cause for outcry. For what society would consider it ‘normal’ that accountability could be exacted at such a scale outside of the institutions and processes that have been set by society as the means by which infractions could be reckoned, judged, and punished? But as has been claimed repeatedly, people are tired of the failings of the system and are willing to tolerate extra-judicial means for as long as problems are addressed.

Strangely, the leader who endorses and tolerates excessive force against crime is not doing enough to reform the system dealing with it. Firing miscreants but not pursuing cases and even appointing them to other positions do not invite confidence in justice and political reform. By keeping institutions and processes weak, the leader keeps for himself discretion over galas and lagas—deciding who are outside the boundaries and could be cut down. In the process, he succeeds in rationalizing concentration of power and strongman rule.

A death stench covers the country and is increasingly hard to ignore. It should assail the senses and offend the sensibilities of everyone. But some have more capacity to tolerate it than others. Sadly, the reek will cling long after the madness of societal galas and lagas seasons have ended. And then there would be no denying where one had been during those times.