Wednesday, September 01, 2010

P.S. to a tragedy

This was my column on the date indicated above.

Everything that needs to be said —and more - about the hostage-taking incident last week has already been said many times over. And yet quite a number of people still feel this overwhelming need to express themselves. I guess what happened was just too gruesome and too incomprehensible that people continue to feel this compelling need to say what it is in their minds and hearts.

People need to grieve and be allowed to do so. And others just have to be patient as those who need to mourn go through the stages of grief including denial and enmity, before they can move on to acceptance. I know; it all looks good in theory but can be very disconcerting in actuality especially if one is directly exposed to the grieving process.

I need to stress this repeatedly: We must respect the grieving and mourning process of our friends in Hong Kong. Those incendiary comments by Filipinos directed at Chinese people in the Internet must be taken down. One particular thread about the Melamine poisoning issue misses the whole point by about a mile. Sensationalist reporting on supposed retaliatory actions directed at Filipinos in Hong Kong needs to be toned down, particularly if these are based on plain hearsay and rumors.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where information has become easily accessible and has become a basic need for many people. This is why there is a part of me that empathizes with the way our local broadcast journalists scrambled all over themselves to get real-time, blow-by-blow coverage of the hostage-taking situation. As ABS-CBN’s Maria Ressa said, if they didn’t do what they did, someone else would have and they would have been forced to do the same. The logic stinks, but it would not be fair to put the blame solely on the “messenger.” Lest we forget, the supply and demand equation also applies to media coverage. Very often we only blame the “supplier” but not the ones that “demand” the goods.

As I predicted, everyone is now pointing fingers at everyone else for the fiasco. Certain powerful allies of the President had been dragged into the fray. Certain traditional politicians have shamelessly piggybacked on the tragedy to forward their respective political agenda. Isn’t it ironic the way Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s allies immediately called for resignations as if the same course of action had precedence in the previous administration?

We all know how messy things eventually get when bloated egos and short tempers mix so the gag order issued Monday on all government officials seems like a wise decision on surface. However, I doubt if such a gag order will really work given how creative our media people can be. And let is not ignore the fact that certain influential people have the resources to mount their own public relations campaigns and we are already seeing some clear examples of such campaigns at work. At the same time, I have serious doubts about how a gag order will sit with a general public who has been clamoring for more direct involvement of the government in managing the crisis.

At any rate, I am sure the gag order placed on everyone will be met with lots of heckling. I can already see how some people will gleefully point out that it as a decision that came too late; it should have been a decision made a week ago when it could have saved lives. But then again, hindsight is always 20/20 vision so we probably need to give some people breathing space. As it is, even the decision not to declare August 23 a holiday was seen as a factor that aggravated the whole tragedy (yes, there were those who actually had the temerity to say that what happened was bad karma for the fact that vacation time was taken away from them).

But what exactly have we learned from the whole tragedy? Everyone seems to be talking about picking up the pieces, about making sure what happened does not recur, about how we can move on from the debacle. I understand that the government is still hard at work trying to piece together what exactly happened at the Quirino Grandstand last week but surely some realizations don’t need a whole committee to formulate.

It is very clear that one of the many things that people would have wanted present during the tragedy was clear and decisive leadership. It really didn’t seem like someone was directly in charge of the negotiations and the management of the crisis.

The lack of leadership has resulted in a backlash that has been directed all the way to the top, at the President himself as many people openly question his whereabouts during the whole tragedy. We have learned that Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim was on top of the situation and that Local Governments Secretary Jesse Robredo was also in the vicinity (we also learned that the President himself was at one point at Emerald Restaurant, just a few blocks away from the hostage-taking site) but it seemed nobody really rose to the occasion and assumed full responsibility. Of course no one very high up in the hierarchy has done so to this day, which is infuriating a lot of people.

Comparisons cannot be helped. I must admit that this thought did enter my mind briefly: Senator Richard Gordon would have done a much better job during the crisis if he were the one sitting at Malacañang. But if we are to be really honest and objective, there really are no guarantees that someone else would have done a better job during the crisis so it’s not really a fair assessment.

But President Aquino did set himself up for the challenge when he gave categorical promises during his inauguration that the days when leaders where inaccessible and when government played deaf and blind to the sentiments of the people were over.

Media has been getting a lot of flak for what is now being referred to as excessive vigilance. I don’t really buy all the crap about how media didn’t know any better, that no one told them what not to do. I think it’s a cop-out. Most of them got carried away by the competition to out-scoop others that they forgot what were really at stake in the situation.

We need to have the resources to deal with crises—and we must put structures that could be operationalized at a moment’s notice. The crisis group needs to be visible and accessible—they need to be the face, the voice, and the hands that provide comfort and assurance to people. Such a group needs to be composed of various disciplines. Clearly, we would have benefited if an expert psychologist were available on site and to the media last week! The kind of amateurish psychoanalytic gibberish media people were churning out were just too ludicrous such as when they tried to make sense of what the driver said when he was able to escape from the bus—that all the hostages were already dead. In fact, Ces Drilon of ABS-CBN kept on stressing that she had confirmation from the team leader on the ground that what the driver said was really true. Clearly, a more enlightened analysis of the state of the mind of the driver would have helped. More scientific and insightful advice to people would have helped.

All these talk about how the tourism industry will take a beating needs to be situated in context. Of course there will be a drop in the number of tourists visiting this country, it’s a natural consequence of tragedies. Perhaps it is good time to focus our energies on building from the ground up. I just came from a trip to the Visayas and let me tell you, the state of our airports is horrendous. I will write about this next week. But to summarize: We worry about tourists coming in, but we don’t worry enough about how to make their stay worthwhile. And safe.

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