Seeing something others don’t

The big topic of coffee shop talk these days is not the signing of the last annexes to the peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Nor is it the government’s latest bid to sidestep the constitutional issues triggered by the Disbursement Acceleration Program by arguing that the program has ceased, and therefore the case against it in the Supreme Court is moot and academic. The hottest subject of the week, rather, is the horrific mauling of the TV actor and comedian Vhong Navarro while visiting a female resident of a condo unit in a posh part of the city.

The incident has all the elements of an intriguing in-depth news report with a long shelf life. There’s violence, there’s sex and money, there’s show-biz celebrity and glamour, there’s TV network competition, and there’s visible mobilization of legal and political muscle.  More important, there are two sharply contrasting versions of what happened, leaving open the question of who is the victim and who is the victimizer.

Information has come in trickles, and each day brings new revelations and new players.  The public is kept buzzing by the addition of new voices that take one side or the other.  Netizens weigh in with their own theories and judgments, highlighting details that others don’t see.

The whole story is a perfect case study for a sociologist who likes looking at events from the standpoint of a second-order observer.  Unlike the first-order observer (that we all are in daily life) who collects information about the world in the course of his/her actions, the second-order observer focuses on how others see the world. On the premise that every way of seeing is also a way of being blind, the second-order observer zeroes in on the blind spots of particular ways of seeing.  These blind spots, which hound every perspective, explain why individuals do not react or respond to situations in ways that may seem natural or logical to others.

To illustrate: The security guards at the condominium building allowed Navarro to proceed to the unit occupied by the woman he was visiting, Deniece Cornejo.  He came through the lobby and so they did not see him as an intruder. We can assume that the guards either recognized him from past visits or he had been cleared by Cornejo.  When Navarro, shortly after, was brought down to the lobby, hands tied, by Cornejo’s friend Cedric Lee and his companions, we can be certain this was noted by the guards and duly entered in their log book.  That the guards did not intercept them suggests that they had been made to see the whole affair as a private matter. This is fascinating: Something unusual is normalized by making it transparent.

Private security guards see many things in the course of their work, but they notice only what it is their duty to notice. It is not their business, for example, to watch out for illicit relationships.  Their principal responsibility is to guard and control access to the premises to which they are assigned, and to assist the legitimate occupants when such assistance is requested.  On this particular day, the guards of Forbeswood chose to be more discreet than vigilant.

It is equally intriguing that Lee and company brought Navarro to the police.  The night duty officer at the Southern Police District precinct who received them and documented their account of what had happened—allegedly a citizen’s arrest in the face of an attempted rape committed by Navarro against Cornejo—entered the testimonies of the concerned parties into the police blotter, and did nothing more.  The supposed rapist, who bore signs of severe physical beating, was neither detained nor physically examined by the police. The police saw nothing strange in the supposed rape victim’s decision not to file a complaint.  Like the security guards at the condo building, the SPD officer inquired no further, in the interest of respecting privacies.

Could he have considered the possibility that the supposed rapist was instead the victim of a frame-up?  If he did entertain such thoughts, chances are they would have been quickly dispelled by the earnest request of a seemingly contrite Navarro that the incident be kept out of the media. Paradoxically, a crime was made invisible by the very act of reporting it to the police. Yet there was nothing extraordinary in the policeman’s willful blindness to an offense that was staring him in the face.  He was clearly led to believe that everything was the result of a domestic misunderstanding, and maybe he thought he was doing everyone a favor by not making a fuss about it.

But accounts changed overnight. Navarro and his lawyers now claim he was set up and mauled by people who were out to extort money. He said he could not tell the policeman on duty at the police station what had really happened because he feared for his life and was confused.  With the support of his friends in the media, however, he has decided to come out to denounce Lee and Cornejo. Not to be outdone, Lee and Cornejo have also made themselves available to the media, giving their version of the events and how they took the trouble to report the matter to the police on the night of Jan. 22.

Between these two clashing narratives is the mute testimony of grainy images captured by the condo’s CCTV cameras.  They show things that people themselves couldn’t see at the time they happened—like the precise moment and sequence at which they entered or emerged from the elevator. These images can be harnessed to lend credence to one version of the events or the other. Yet the recordings do not speak for themselves. Thus, we may never know the full story behind this incident.