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It is inaccurate to declare that terrorism is a novel phenomenon of recent vintage. The concept and practice of terrorism in the modern era antedate the 1987 Philippine Constitution by almost two centuries, while the first international covenant against terrorism in 1963 predates our Charter by more than two decades. Terrorism was practiced even before the birth of Christ.

Modern terrorism traces its ancestry to the “Reign of Terror” (September 5, 1793 – July 27, 1794) when the French revolutionary government employed various acts of terrorism – arrest without warrant, detention without bail, and execution without public trial – to consolidate the gains of the revolution and eliminate resistance from remnants and supporters of the monarchy and nobility.

The parliament of the revolutionary government enacted two terror laws: (1) the Law of 22 Prairial which “suspended a suspect’s right to public trial and legal assistance and left the jury a choice only of acquittal or death”; and (2) the Law of Suspects which authorized the arrest of “those who by their conduct, relations or language spoken or written have shown themselves partisans of tyranny or federalism and enemies of liberty.” Perforce, suspects were held culpable by the vague criminalization of their relationship or expression.

These laws “placed terror in the order of the day”, a horrific agenda underscored by Maximillien Robespierre, the chief architect of the regime of terror, when he intoned that “virtue without terror is powerless”. The Reign of Terror resulted in the arrest of 300,000 suspects in less than a year; the execution of about 17,000 persons; and the death in prison without trial of some 10,000 inmates. Among those guillotined was Robespierre himself due to his excesses.

Verily, at its inception, terrorism was State-sponsored. Until the 20th century, terrorism was equated with “violence perpetrated by the government”. It was also at the advent of the 20th century when terrorism mutated to non-state terrorism, a conspiracy by enemies of the State using violence and fear “to achieve political ends or topple the existing government”. It is now propelled by ideological, religious, and secessionist motives and transcends national frontiers.

Non-state terrorists include the Ku Klux Klan; the Basque separatist group ETA; the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); Germany’s Red Army Faction; Peru’s Shining Path; Italy’s Red Brigades; Taliban; Al Qaeda; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG); and the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa which fought violently against apartheid, and subsequently succeeded as the ruling party.

Some terrorist groups are movements for national liberation which led to the saying “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. But threat, violence, or terror, either by the government or non-state actors, does not justify the pursuit of noble aspirations. This hardline position could be relaxed for revolutionary crusades against repressive and corrupt regimes, and of course, in the forceful implementation by the government of its veritable exercise of police power for the commonweal where people’s freedoms are reasonably restricted.  

The reemergence of totalitarian regimes revived State terrorism like in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin; Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler; China under Mao Zedong; Uganda under Idi Amin; Cambodia under Pol Pot; Iraq under Saddam Hussein; Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Burma under military dictatorships; and the Philippines under Marcos’ martial law regime.

The world today is confronted by two forms of terrorism: (1) establishment terrorism committed by the government against its own citizens; and (2) non-state terrorism perpetrated not only by enemies of the State but also by malefactors against the world order.

The Philippines faces these two forms of terrorism: from the criminal terrorists who must be neutralized, captured, prosecuted, and convicted once warranted by requisite evidence; and from State terrorism whose malevolence elevates national security to a pedestal and relegates people’s fundamental freedoms to a footstool. Consequently, its dismantling is critically warranted.

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (ATA) in its major provisions is akin to State terrorism in its original usage during the French Revolution. Like the Law of Suspects of the Reign of Terror, the ATA: (1) authorizes arbitrary arrests of mere suspects and their prolonged detention without judicial warrant or intervention; and (2) infringes on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. Thus, government terrorism is institutionalized by legislation like the terror laws of the French regime of terror.

However, the defenders of the ATA boldly proclaim that it was enacted to exorcise terrorism and to prevent the country from being a haven for foreign terrorists.

As the final arbiter of justiciable issues and the judicious guardian of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has the solemn duty of resolving the 37 petitions’ collective assertion that the ATA is unconstitutional for debasing fundamental rights, and the contrary position of the government that the ATA is a valid and justified exercise of police power to preserve and maintain national security against terrorists.

The High Court may find relevant its own pronouncements in SWS vs. COMELEC, Ople vs. Torres, and Chavez vs. Gonzales, among others. Following SWS, the ATA suffers “a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity” since it is challenged as a prior restraint to protected speech.  Ople categorically ruled that “[i]n case of doubt, the least we can do is to lean towards the stance that will not put in danger the rights protected by the said Constitution.” Chavez succinctly and aptly held that “[a] blow too soon struck for freedom is preferred than a blow too late.”

Resurgence of State terrorism must be nipped in the bud. Otherwise, it will grow into a predatory Venus flytrap in the sacrosanct garden of civil liberties.