Life as television

In our society, when a man has a problem he cannot handle, he seeks the company of friends and drinks with them.  Thus sheltered by kindly souls and protected by alcohol, he steps out of himself and cries out his distress.

Sometimes he retreats into solitude, but unable to handle  the graver environment of silence, he may sink into depression, self-pity and anger, and runs amok.     That word, the Malay term for frenzy and now a part of the English language, might describe the situation in which Ferdinand Angel found himself on that fateful first  Sunday of 1996.

Angel was the policeman who seized a 6-year-old girl inside a church  in the middle of a mass, holding her hostage with a pistol  for nearly 6 hours.  He did not know his victim.  He was not trying to escape, nor was anyone trying to arrest or kill him.  The reasons for his distress remained ambiguous.  What was clear in everybody’s mind was the event — a hostage-taking.

Some reports said that Angel had been saddled by an overpowering guilt which he wanted to unload at the confessional box.  But the priest had supposedly ignored him because he appeared drunk or drugged. Angel was deeply slighted.  His first instinct was to assert that he still existed.  This he did by demonstrating his capacity to harm.  Perhaps you can insult a man’s ambition but never his anguish.

The real amok in Malay culture takes leave of all his senses.  He goes berserk and kills everyone who crosses his path.  He does not argue; the time for negotiation is over.  He exits violently from a world that treated him violently.

We no longer hear of authentic amoks in our society.  What we have instead — consonant probably with a media-crazed society — are its poor imitations: hostage-takers of all kinds.  I am not very certain what pattern this signifies.

But it is both alarming and interesting to note that Ferdinand Angel was not the first non-fugitive to take hostages.

We have had several of them this past year in fact.  Their common denominator seems to be  their success in drawing the sympathy of an instant public  and the full and sustained attention of the mass media.  There is an almost cinematic quality in the way they are covered.  The actions of the key players in these true-to-life scenes  appear frighteningly contrived and stagey.

It is as if the hostage-taker is acting out a role in a drama he has seen before. And so as he moves about, frame by frame, there is  method in his anguish. This is not the amok of the olden days.  This is the postmodern desperado who patterns his behavior after the idiom of radio and television.

Could it be that most of today’s hostage-taking cases are really nothing but the poor man’s press conferences?  That, in the final analysis, there is little that qualitatively separates the public disturbance created by a Ferdinand Angel from the press conference called by a Jenny Concepcion?  Clearly, both involve the public baring of private pain.  Both address the voyeuristic inclinations of an insatiable public.  Both are meant to capture the widest attention.

In America these days, TV talkshows have transformed the exhibition of personal conflicts into a flourishing industry.  Invited guests are typically encouraged to verbally assault one another before an incredibly judgmental studio audience.  Or prodded to proclaim  before a now applauding audience the most private sentiments of love and tenderness.  One begins to wonder if these are paid actors or real people.

We are getting close to this.  Showbiz culture it is called.  It is the kind of life elicited by the camera — emotionally vacant, but always urgent.  Seriousness bordering on parody.  The mise-en-scene is sustained by a company of collaborators, showbiz writers and personal assistants, who, by their reactions and side comments, confirm the matching between reality and the definition of the situation.

To some extent, politicians and public officials are not very different.  No longer content with speeches or press releases, they now stage, through press conferences,  the grandness of public affairs and the heroism of their civic apostolate.  In their hands, statecraft becomes synonymous with media visibility.

What becomes of life when its truth has to be validated by television?  We would be emoting our feelings in an effort to persuade ourselves they are real.

Our interactions would be in sound bites that mock our deepest sentiments. We would be role-playing.

I thought that was what was most frightening in the Ferdinand Angel incident. It wasn’t the act of hostage-taking itself that was remarkable, but its theatrical character and its essential predictability.  It was as if Angel had lifted a model of being from television and proceeded to act out his distress according to its grammar.  And the public obliged by assuming the necessary supporting roles.

Someone calls his wife.  A TV reporter holds out a microphone.  A priest tries to pacify him while police sharpshooters position themselves.  The city mayor comes, comforts him, and assures him his safety.  The hostage-taker relents, releases his victim, and is taken away.  Thus the drama of life imitating television unfolds.

*   *    *

Beginning next week I shall be in Mexico City briefly as a visiting professor at the Universidad  Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.   I might not find the time to write and send my columns from there.  In any event,  I hope to resume writing when I return  in March. 


Comments to <>