Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bus Tragedy a Sad Reminder of a Society Mired in Despair: Jakarta Globe

In the 1994 film “Speed” starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, the entire premise was captured with one memorable line: “There’s a bomb on the bus!”

In the 2010 hostage situation drama broadcast live from the Philippines on Monday, the memorable quote may as well have been, “There’s a bum on the bus!”

Rolando Mendoza, 55, a former police officer who claimed that he was wrongly relieved of his duties, held 22 tourists from Hong Kong and three Filipinos hostage on a bus in central Manila.

The standoff lasted for close to 12 hours and ended with at least nine people dead, including the hostage-taker.

The situation illustrates the dysfunction that pervades so much of Filipino society. Here’s why.

The media. They should have exercised more restraint. There should have been a media blackout or a delay in the live broadcast. It was reported that Mendoza was able to monitor what was happening on TV inside the bus.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in the Philippines has guidelines on their Web site regarding how media should behave during a situation like this.

These include provisions on live coverage as the situation unfolds, not getting involved in the action and refraining from inflammatory language.

But these guidelines were ignored. We saw everything unfold, scene by scene, and one journalist even reportedly helped with the negotiations.

Viewed from afar, we can only imagine what the live commentary was like — a whole lot of speculation disguised as intelligent analysis.

A friend on Twitter said that one local channel described how Mendoza’s brains were scattered onto the floor. Far from a relevant observation, the comment smacks of a reporter desperate for a colorful quip.

The police. They did not have the necessary equipment and did not wear protective gear. They did not have a procedure to keep the media and onlookers out of the way.

And the situation lasted for 12 hours. How something can last that long and still end with people dead is mind-boggling. Saying the negotiations did not go well would be putting it mildly.

Then there’s Mendoza, the person who caused the whole calamity.

A former police officer who was once named one of the 10 Outstanding Policemen of the Philippines, he received at least 17 other recognitions for his service before he was cashiered over a misconduct charge, which apparently set off his rampage.

The government. At the height of the situation, as it lead newscasts around the world, the central government did not speak.

Instead, viewers were regaled by actor-turned-Manila-vice-mayor Isko Moreno, who gave an incoherent interview in English to CNN.

He obviously didn’t know what happened with the negotiations, but nonetheless weighed in on the matter, live.

The people. Bystanders milled around the scene of the standoff, despite being fully aware of the gravity of the situation. They did not stand back and let the police do their job.

One person was reportedly hit by a stray bullet, yet others have the gall to blame only the police.

When the hostage crisis came to its bloody finale, the onlookers crowded around the bus. Some even took photos. They should have cleared the area and let the hostages be evacuated in safety.

Even the driver added to the mayhem when he climbed out of the bus and reported that everyone else was dead, instilling further panic.

The aftermath. In the end, it was sad day for my country because we have once again starred in a laughable — and live-televised — parody of how we work out our problems.

Even sadder is the idea that somehow, Maria Venus Raj, who competed in the Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas on Tuesday, would help improve the sorry reputation of the Philippines after the latest mess. Raj was a trending topic on Twitter alongside the hostage situation.

When we look to a beauty pageant as redemption for national tragedy, there is truly something wrong.

In the end, all Filipinos have to share the blame, because each of us has helped contribute to the country’s current state with our apathy.

We look out only for ourselves, our families and our friends and not don’t seem to care while others suffer. All of us are guilty in one way or another.

We need discipline. We need restraint. We need to follow the laws. Things are messed up, but we shouldn’t give up.

We have already taken a step in the right direction by exercising our right to vote this year, even though it meant sacrificing our personal comfort by registering and lining up for hours.

But most of all, we need to put a stop to our sense of entitlement, the idea that we deserve better even though we don’t help to make things better.

It is this attitude that is, little by little, sinking the Philippines into the depths of despair. (Amee R. Enriquez, a Filipino national, is an editor with the Jakarta Globe.)


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