Mr. Buencamino writes political commentaries for Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in Malaya, October 3, 2005 edition, page A5.

I’ve heard of preemptive war, preemptive attack, preemptive medicine, preemptive bid, preemptive move, but I have never heard of preemptive response until Secretary Eduardo Ermita used it.

“What the heck is a preemptive response?” I asked my ESL (English as a Strange Language) professor.

He replied, “Beats me. It sounds like an oxymoron but you better check with your local pundit; maybe it means something to him.”

So I asked and I got the typical pundit’s response, “In what context was it uttered?”

I said, “Secretary Ermita announced on martial law day:  The rule of calibrated preemptive response is now in force, in lieu of maximum tolerance.”

“Oh I see,” he replied as he pondered his next question. “And what was that maximum tolerance policy that was junked?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it meant that you could exercise your right to speak and assemble if you had permission to do so,” I said.

He asked: “Does that mean they will not issue permits now?”

“I guess so,” I said. “Hmm, now I understand preemptive response.”

“You think so?” was his reply.

He was challenging me, so I said: “What else could it be except that they would stop giving permits to rally?”

“Well, that’s where you miss it. Not giving out permits is the response to mass actions. Suspending mayors who give permits to demonstrations, that’s preemptive response.”

“And where does calibration enter the picture?” I asked.

“It starts with the announcement of a policy shift on a day when the symbolism cannot be missed. It is followed by an intentional leak about martial law being in the works. The leak is then followed with prepared denials but, at the same time, an admission that scenarios falling short of martial law are indeed being studied.”
“And then?”

“And then, you send out the choir to sing songs like, ‘Congress won’t go for martial law now;’ ‘the military does not believe the right conditions exist now;’ ‘it’s not feasible now’ and all that. But you always keep the subtext that it’s the timing–not martial law itself–that is objectionable.”

I asked: “You mean they are just waiting for the right time to act?”

“They are not waiting. They are calibrating.  The idea behind calibration is to make incremental changes.  It is a little more subtle like gradually tightening the screws instead of driving nails.

“For example, a mayor who gives rally permits will be suspended for reasons not even remotely associated with his politics.  If he resists, the DILG secretary will send the police to enforce the rule of law. There is nothing illegal with the order per se. So the police will be forced to obey, even though they know the real reason behind the suspension of the mayor.

“Another example, the Justice Secretary will twist a law so that whistle-blowers can be charged with leaking confidential information. Exposes will be banned and only good news will remain.  Incremental changes are so subtle they are impossible to resist,” he concluded.

“How so?” I wondered aloud.

“Imagine your courtship. You start with holding her hand, then you put an arm around her shoulder, then you give her a light kiss. And before you know it, there’s a furious wife screaming at you: ‘If I ever catch you again going there with your friends …..’

“Now if you had known that that is where your first date was going to end, wouldn’t you have cancelled that first date and met up with your friends instead? That is the logic behind calibrated preemptive response”

“Jeesh,” I thought, “political pundits must be nature’s way of filling a vacuum.”