I am still thinking about last monday’s Manila bus siege, and I am still saddened by it. Saddened by the death of tourists — one a mere child — who only wanted a little fun, a breath of richer air, a taste of stronger sunshine, so trusting they let an armed man in uniform hitch a ride with them. Saddened by how the drama dragged on and brutally concluded — too many risks taken, too few opportunities grabbed, too much meddling, too little thought, so many unnecessary losses. Saddened by how easily the international community hurls words like flaming bricks at the Philippines, words like incompetent, stupid, dangerous, insensitive, and saddened by how, for all the explanations and defenses, riding on the surge of emotion they ring true. Even Filipinos are repeating that judgment to themselves, calling the hostage-taker, the police, the media, the crowd, the president — anyone but their own all-too-bright heads on comfortable butts — incompetent, stupid, dangerous, insensitive.
And yes, shit happens, and the Philippines doesn’t have a monopoly on tragedy. And yes, nobody wanted or expected it to turn out that way — it started peacefully enough. And yes, no amount of sighing or blamestorming is going to make things any better, and yes, yes, we’re always brighter in hindsight, we always know exactly What To Do after the fact.
But why do we make the same mistakes again and again and still, we never learn? And by “again and again” I mean last monday’s hostage-taking wasn’t our first, and by “we” I mean us Filipinos.
It’s not that I wish to make of the incident a national allegory, much less let the attitude of those involved define us as a people, but it’s hard not to see it as a symptom or a playing out of national malaise, especially when its aspects, some of which arguably aggravated the situation, seem bound to our culture. The stunt pulled as a desperate extrajudicial bid for justice in a country with a deeply flawed justice system, the emphasis put on family, the lack of rigid procedure, the media circus, the great usiseros and the grinning camwhores, the swift and easy — indeed, eager — turn to the Miss Universe pageant for diversion and a sort of national reclamation, etc. — at the risk of essentializing, I’d say these are aspects tied to our culture, though not only to our culture. When the media was criticized for not following the Poynter Institute’s guidelines for covering hostage crises, for instance, Maria Ressa said on Twitter that those guidelines work in a western setting, not necessarily in our context (I can see her point — I can’t imagine, say, Britons crowding the crime scene during a crisis — they would most likely walk away lest they be implicated; still, I think those guidelines are sensible and should and can be enforced with the proper will and a certain level of intelligence and sense of responsibility. As it is, the media covered the incident with abandon when self-regulation was essential — but I’ll leave this here as the role of the media in a country with a bungling government is a different territory to tackle).
Poor little Third World country, with your OFWs quaking in shame and trepidation for their safety their livelihood their reputation, your messed up sense of reclaiming dignity, your under-trained under-equipped police, your ineffectual president, your nosy kibbitzing people most of whom do nothing but consume the news delivered so wantonly by your journalists, and prate from behind a façade of wisdom and righteousness, your ADD-afflicted people steeped in punchlines and fanfare — anything to keep themselves sane in the madness that is your society — your bonny blithering beauty pageant bet and her major major gaffe, your lousy weather, your nightmarish traffic — have I missed any of the recent complaints? — poor little Third World country, here’s a tourism embargo on you, cup your hands for the anger and the exasperation and the mockery of the world and yourselves.
And poor little unread blogger, prating like the rest of them, saying that we, as a country, ought, and can, be better than this, you’re part of the problem too.