Thursday, August 21, 2008

In the name of public safety

This was my column yesterday, August 20.


It’s either of two things. Either most people in Davao have simply gotten used to living with threats to life and property that they’ve learned to take them all in stride, or they have already become desensitized to media’s alarmist reportage that they don’t pay heed even when bloody footages are shown non-stop on television.

Whatever the reason, the bombings in Iligan and the conflict in other parts of Mindanao that have claimed the lives of a number of soldiers and civilians seemed to have produced no discernible effects on the people of Davao. I was there over the weekend and while my own kith and kin in Manila were wringing their hands worrying about my safety because they had this impression that the whole of Mindanao was at war, the malls, the bars, the restaurants, the cafés were all bursting at the seams with people. Last weekend was the weekend before the famous Kadayawan festival and Davao City seemed already in the mood to party.

I presumed that the deluge of people around the entertainment centers was courtesy of the run up to the Kadayawan festival (which is happening this week and which will culminate in the coming weekend with day-long indak-indak street dancing and parade of floats). But my friends assured me that it was an ordinary weekend crowd. Apparently, the weekend gimik culture is also making waves in Davao as in other major cities in the country.

But the bombings in Iligan and the MILF rampage in Cotabato and other places did have a palpable effect at the Davao International Airport where security was very tight. The gauntlet that passengers were forced to go through at Manila terminals were child’s play compared to what we went through Monday at the Davao International Airport while catching a return flight to Manila.

We were frisked a grand total of four times, had to take off footwear and metallic object from our bodies twice, had to surrender lighters and whatever objects the authorities deemed contraband to security personnel, and had to endure gruff and surly people manning various points of the airport, all in the name of public safety and security.

I really don’t mind submitting myself to these safety procedures. I’ve even learned to be philosophical about the whole rigmarole—casting it off as part of this whole national drill of routines designed to project the idea that some semblance of control is in place. We know that all those safety precautions and security procedures don’t really do much other than serve as psychological deterrent and bring psychological comfort to paranoid people. Terrorists are trained to evade basic security procedures. Surely, anyone with the evil intent to blow up an airport will not hide the bomb in his hand-carried luggage.

The authorities know that we know and we know that they know that we know. We go through the whole thing simply because there’s some comfort that can be drawn from mindlessly following a drill. At the very least, we all want to be able to say we did our part.

But I do mind when people, particularly those who are in customer service positions, automatically assume that security procedures and ensuring public safety on one hand, and courtesy and customer service on the other hand, are mutually exclusive concepts. In other words, they assume that a red alert or a security threat is license for them to let loose their latent sado-masochism fantasies.

The way I see it, the quest for public safety and security does not have to mean that passengers who pay good money to use certain facilities have to be denied basic courtesy in the process. In fact, I subscribe to the notion that the graver the security threat and the more stringent the security procedures, the kinder and more courteous security people should be. Unfortunately, this is a paradigm that is completely alien to people who seem to think that authority is derived mainly from one’s ability to wear a constipated look in the face. They think that the only way to enforce discipline and ensure safety is by barking orders, appearing tough, and in general, becoming bullies.

I don’t take credit for the changes at the Centennial Terminal, but I did note certain changes after I wrote about the inconveniences that passengers are forced to go through in the name of public safety in that terminal. For example, they have now placed carpets along the pathways so that passengers don’t have to tread on cold presumably dirty floors because their footwear have to be placed under x-ray machines to be examined for—well, who actually knows? They’ve also improved the queue systems so that traffic flows more easily and without obstruction.

The administrators of the Davao International Airport can certainly learn from the experience.

But over and above these things, what should really make more impact are the competencies of the people who are in direct contact with passengers. Why is it that the people who man our airports and other public facilities seem to think that their job description is to be stern, strict, and uncompromising? It’s the classic military paradigm—soldiers and police authorities are not supposed to be nice, that they are supposed to bark orders, not smile at all, and try their darned best to come across as fascists and tyrants.

I don’t mean to suggest that those who man those x-ray machines, frisk people, and pry into luggage wear Hawaiian shirts and sing “Leron Leron Sinta” while doing their jobs. But they can be nicer. Or at least wear neutral expression on their faces. And they can definitely be more courteous. They can be more customer-friendly.

They can remind themselves that while everyone is potentially a terrorist or at least a smuggler, everyone is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. So the surly manner and the authoritarian tendencies can be done away with.

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