Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Flogging ourselves again

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Given the magnitude of what happened last Monday at the Quirino Grandstand, I expect the op-ed pages of our newspapers today to be overflowing with commentaries about why the tragedy happened, what exactly went wrong, who should be made responsible, etc. Hopefully, there will also be equal attention on what we all learned from the hostage-taking crisis and what we should be doing moving forward.

In fact, it was sad that some television and radio stations couldn’t hold off even for just a few minutes to allow everyone some precious moments of reflection and be able to process the tragedy. They immediately started the process of looking for someone to blame—even as the bodies of the hostages were still being taken off the bus. It was only a matter of time before they trundled out the long line of people with a mouthful to say on the matter; even Armando Ducat Jr, the guy who held hostage a bus full of schoolchildren a couple of years back was resurrected from oblivion!

Suddenly, everyone was an expert on hostage-taking situations!

In this age of YouTube, videos of more effectives ways of managing hostage-taking situations done elsewhere in the world were immediately tagged and people gleefully pointed to these as the way things should have been done as if all factors in a hostage-taking situation are as universal as the mouse they used to click those images.

A student I was chatting with online while the crisis was unfolding told me he needed to make sense of the whole thing but couldn’t because local media’s treatment of the whole thing was so frenetic there was just no time to allow things to sink in, much less to think intelligently. Why, even Mel Tiangco was hyperventilating the whole time! Media covered every possible angle of the crisis at certain points that local TV stations had four views of the bus shown on television. And they wondered why the SWAT team couldn’t position themselves properly with all those media people annotating every single movement at the grandstand?

We probably have watched too many action movies because everyone seemed to have this notion that the SWAT team should have simply stormed the bus with guns blazing a la Rambo last Monday night.

I need to say this at once: I wish that in the future, we could all learn to tone down the excitement and learn to deal with crisis situations in a more sober, more restrained, and less dramatic way. We need to tone down our penchant for histrionics. We have got to learn how to do things with a little less exuberance.

The hostage taker could have done this. His brother and his relatives could also have done the same—they could have done away with the hysterics and reminded themselves that it was not about them. The police could have put into practice more science and less gut feel, and definitely more patience. And media and everyone else from the uziseros (kibitzers) at the Luneta Park to the people in front of their televisions, radios, or computers at home could have done the same thing as well—we could have trusted the police a little more and didn’t get in the way of the operations.

At some point I wished it were possible for someone to have had the sense to step into the whole picture and scream: let’s tone down the excitement and the drama, this is not a teleserye! But unfortunately, asking Filipinos not to turn events such as the hostage-taking incident last Monday into a major production is virtually impossible. We fall for big messy fiascos that allow everyone their one big scene-stealing moment!

Please forgive me if you are getting the impression that I am trivializing what happened last Monday night. I am not. I am just as upset and mortified as everyone else. But over and above everything else, I am frustrated at our utter inability to learn from previous experiences. More importantly, I am aghast at our collective penchant for big public confrontations afterwards where we look for someone to blame, castigate people publicly, and flog ourselves hard as we imagine all kinds of worst-case and grim scenarios that would befall us as a result of the tragedy. Boy, are we so hard on ourselves! We don’t wait for criticism from other nations we take it upon ourselves to do it to ourselves, and more viciously!

I am deeply bothered by all these dire predictions talk about how the tragedy would negatively impact the future of tourism in this country. When the Hong Kong government came up with that travel advisory blacklisting the Philippines as a travel destination barely minutes after the hostage-taking incident, the link to the Internet site immediately got reposted in various blogs and Facebook sites along with all possible variations of wailing and sniveling over how we’ve lost our supposed pride of place in the global community.

Okay. I agree that what happened was a cause of embarrassment. I do not agree that it had gross incompetence written all over it; but I concede that the crisis gave the country the equivalent of a black eye in the global community. But who can actually say with certainty that what happened spelled doom for the future of Philippine tourism? And why are we the ones saying these things when we should be focusing our energies in defending ourselves?

Instead of wringing our hands in frustration and wailing our guts out, we can help in bringing this important message across: Senior Inspector Rolando del Rosario Mendoza was not representative of Filipinos, nor of the police force in this country. He was an aberration.

I hope that current efforts to paint Mendoza as some kind of a renegade hero are given the right context. He might have valid gripes (the man was a high-ranking official earning barely P19,000) but there is no possible justification for what he did.

I have no illusions that the tragedy that happened Monday night was a simple matter of a man driven to the brink of desperation, or of collective incompetence of the police authorities, or of the misplaced exuberance on the part of the media. What happened was far more complicated. I appreciate the efforts to unravel the events and to find explanations, but first things first. Rather than automatically dive into a frenzy of blaming and Pinoy bashing, perhaps we should first all take a moment to honor those who lost their lives in the tragedy. The government should probably initiate this—an hour of reflection or mourning for the senseless tragedy. And perhaps we should make an effort to process what happened—in a somber, calm and intelligent way.

The events of Monday night affect each one of us in many ways; there is something we can all learn from what happened. It would be such a waste if we all get caught up in the frenzy of blaming to be able to distill real lessons from the tragedy.

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