This piece on the hostage-taking tragedy in Luneta was published on August 31, 2010.
Imagine, for a moment, that criticism of media coverage of the Aug. 23 tragedy extended to the whereabouts of network CEOs on that fateful day. In reflecting on the work of the ABS-CBN news organization, for instance, people would then demand to know, “Where the hell was Gabby Lopez?” And however Lopez (or Felipe Gozon of GMA, or Manny Pangilinan of TV5) would choose to answer, perhaps by talking about operational responsibility, or the division of labor that allows a news and entertainment enterprise to do its work, or the daily reality of editorial independence, the answer would always come across as so much defensive posturing.
This absurd, where-is-the-network-CEO scenario is, of course, meant to provoke reflection on the assumption, held by many Filipinos, that President Benigno Aquino III should have been “present” (either physically or through sheer force of character) during the developing crisis. Both Conrad de Quiros and Jarius Bondoc have already answered in the negative. I share their view, but I am more interested in the fact that it was a common assumption. Common, but still erroneous.
Many commentaries have been written since the hostage-taking turned deadly; most, in my view, have been merely reactive. But I did find two commentaries most helpful for making sense of the tragedy and its aftermath. I also found one other piece (a news story in the South China Morning Post) to be instructively flawed.
The first commentary I saw that provided—dare I say it?—the right perspective was posted on Facebook about 30 hours after the tragedy. In her note, lawyer Trixie Cruz-Angeles responded to comments which all too readily assumed a national culture of stupidity. “When the smoke cleared and the bodies were counted, as Mendoza’s story slowly is spread to a visibly shaken nation, I am shattered by the vicious remarks brought to my doorstep courtesy of Facebook. I see words like ‘Only in the Philippines’ and ‘nakakahiya tayo.’ Here are my countrymen, talking about themselves as though everything that had been done wrong at the Quirino Grandstand was a national trait, as though stupidity were possible only here and the only ones capable of it are Filipinos.” Trixie’s short note quickly became viral; as of mid-afternoon of Aug. 30, a total of 2,682 people on Facebook had clicked the “like” button and (even more impressive, for a post written by a non-politician or a non-celebrity) it had drawn some 1,548 comments.
The second commentary was Randy David’s Sunday column. It was a meditation on the nature of media, but its second paragraph offered a useful overview of the post-trauma discourse. “What we have here, I think, is a series of unexpected and unfortunate outcomes in search of causes. Not as obvious are the unexamined prejudices—racial, political, personal, class, organizational, etc.—that have been activated, all searching for confirmation.”
I think the notion of unexamined prejudice best describes our unthinking demand for the President’s presence during the crisis. Let me be clear: Malacañang committed lapses in judgment, but Mr. Aquino’s deliberate decision to keep a low profile was not one of them. My view, I realize, runs directly counter to the Inquirer editorial last Thursday which scored the President’s “dangerous naiveté” (or to a style of management which letter-writer Edel Garcellano attributes to the President’s hacendero mindset). But for reasons of principle and practicality, I cannot agree that Mr. Aquino should have cut a higher profile.
Principle: For the democratic project to succeed, we need to grow in political maturity. Demanding that the President of the Philippines be seen as being on top of the situation at all times, regardless of the scope or gravity or nature of the incident, stunts that necessary growth. Practicality: The hostage-taking took a turn for the worse very rapidly. If President Aquino had made his “presence” felt before, say, 6 p.m,, when by all accounts (even those of surviving hostages) matters were well in hand, he would have turned an incident into a crisis, requiring nothing less than presidential intervention. If he imposed his “presence” in the two hours or so when the situation turned into a crisis, he would have gotten in the way, or rendered himself redundant.
I would like to propose the following thought experiment, to see whether it was really necessary for President Aquino to be “present” during the crisis. If the hostage-taking had ended peacefully, with no loss of lives, would anyone still demand the President’s “presence”? I think not. It was precisely because the situation had crossed the threshold and become a crisis that many Filipinos realized the President’s “absence.” But the crossing of the threshold took a mere couple of hours; for the country’s CEO to make his “presence” felt then, not because there was nobody in charge on the ground but only because it was seemly for the President to be seen being presidential, Philippine-style—that would have been an unwelcome distraction.
One last note. Raissa Robles’ exclusive account in the South China Morning Post (the byline is shared by Fanny W. Y. Fung) narrates the Donald Tsang telephone call fiasco. It’s a good read, but it reserves the professional skepticism that should distinguish all journalism only for Malacañang’s version of events. No attempt is made to apply the same skepticism to Tsang’s account. It seems that his office made only two phone calls to the Palace in a space of four hours, but in his emotional first press briefing on Aug. 23, he said he had been trying to call Malacañang since 4 p.m. The discrepancy, in my view, is not at all trivial.