Madness and accountability

Rolando Mendoza, the gunman in the August 23 hostage-taking incident, had lost control of his mind. We don’t need a psychologist or a psychiatrist to tell us that.  Anyone who hijacks a tourist bus at gunpoint and holds its passengers hostage — only to demand that he be restored to the job from which he had been dismissed – is not just committing a crime.  He has gone mad.  If he’s not killed, he would be spending the rest of his life in jail.

Needless to say, Mendoza’s madness does not diminish the objective gravity of his deed.  Because of what he did – kidnapping and killing innocent tourists — he exposed the entire Filipino nation to global ridicule and shame.  Indeed, all of us must accept a measure of responsibility for what happened, for we are all, in a real sense, answerable for the kind of society we have created for ourselves.

The burden of that shame falls heavily on Mendoza’s family. But, so too, must it fall on all our political leaders, past and present. If there is any sensitivity left in their bones, they should at least shut up while the investigation is gong on, instead of self-righteously calling for the resignation of some top officials in the current administration, or, worse, criticizing President Aquino for accepting ultimate responsibility for the failures of August 23. IfMendoza had not been killed, his lawyers would have had a strong basis to secure his exoneration from murder charges on grounds of insanity. Madness erases legal accountability.  But there’s nothing that our leaders can invoke to diminish their responsibility for the state of our institutions.

Mendoza was visibly crazy and dangerous, as many people — regardless of race, religion, class or culture — tend to become when they feel unjustly singled out and oppressed.  No one in his right mind can possibly think that he can secure a legally binding order reversing a decision on a case by hijacking a busload of foreign tourists and threatening to shoot them.  It is clear he had flipped, even if there were many moments during the standoff when he seemed lucid. To take him down at any point would have been justified, though it would hardly have been the preferred option.

What is baffling is the Office of the Ombudsman’s failure to grasp the seriousness of the situation and the crucial nature of the role they were asked to play to defuse the crisis. Instead of humoring Mendozaby issuing an order reinstating him to his job, they sent him instead a written promise to review his case within ten days — as if their overriding concern at that crucial moment was the preservation of the integrity of the judicial process rather than the preservation of the lives of the hostages. We don’t need a lawyer to tell us that an order issued under such circumstances carries no binding effect. But this didn’t seem to matter to the Office of the Ombudsman. They insisted on being legally correct. It makes one wonder if people in such high offices, lost in the rituals of their limited functions, can still think like sensible human beings.

Just as infuriating was the behavior of some people from the broadcast media during the hostage crisis. Where lives are at stake, as in an extremely volatile hostage standoff, one expects media to defer to the judgment of the police.  One does not need an explicit protocol for media behavior under such conditions to know that no one, not even a media person, should get in the way of police work.  You cannot invoke the public’s right to know as a justification to freely approach or communicate with an armed gunman who is holding hostages at gunpoint.   Not even if it was the gunman himself who initiated the communication or demanded the media’s intervention.  This is not just a matter of ethics.  It is what a commonsensical orientation to law and order requires of all citizens.

But, what did the Radio Mo Network (RMN) anchors think they were doing when they kept hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza on the air by mobile phone?  By their own admission, they had not taken on the role of mediator or negotiator. They said they were just doing their work as journalists, prompting investigating committee member Teresita Ang-See’s justified retort: “Your profession should never be more important than human lives.” As journalists, they were not expected to plead for the lives of the hostages.  But as human beings, who were in a position to do so, they could have spoken for the innocent people whose lives were in peril at that moment.  As it turned out, they were efficient as journalists, but, on many counts, they failed as citizens.

Tragic and traumatic as the events of August 23 have been for the victims, the people of Hong Kong, the police, the government, and the Filipino nation as a whole, there must be something positive we can draw from this experience. This is the perfect time to reflect on the longterm consequences of institutional damage, and, above all, to accept accountability. While we have long known that we need to change the way we govern ourselves, I don’t think we have fully appreciated the urgency of this task.  Now we know.  It would be madness to think that August 23 would just blow away like a storm even if we didn’t act.