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In Fairness to Noynoy

The Inquirer reports that the President has so generously taken responsibility for the botched rescue attempt involving tourists from Hong Kong recently held hostage by a former policeman. To quote directly from the Inquirer, the President’s words were, “At the end of the day, I am responsible for everything that transpired.” The remark, the Inquirer further stated, was in relation to remarks made by Sen. Francis Escudero that Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo faces a difficult confirmation process before the Commission on Appointments.

I will have to applaud the President’s gallantry. It is old-fashioned and refreshing; almost medieval, in a manner of speaking. In a country where the washing of hands is more the norm in the political scene, the fact that no less than the President of the country has not hidden from the flack and – instead – placed himself right in the middle of it sets the example for everyone else in the hierarchy.

The message is loud and clear: “Do not shirk your responsibilities!” If I may be allowed the liberty of interpretation, there is another, subtler message that the President’s gesture delivers: “If nobody else has the gumption to own up to responsibility, then I will!”

Indeed, and predictably so, the accusations and the counter-accusations started flying as soon as the dust settled. Our political culture, regrettably, is one of finger-pointing and blame. The constant asking of the question who-is-to-blame often supersedes the more important question what-is-to-be-done.

Hence, there were those who were quick to point out in the aftermath of the botched rescue attempt that the previous administration would have reacted to the crisis more decisively. Essentially and unmistakably, blame was immediately being placed on the current administration for an incident that was – plain and simply – way below the concerns of national government.

Granted, the incident was escalated to the status of a national concern because the Chinese were becoming irked with what they were seeing on television – but who was beaming the gory scenes to them live in the first place? Had the hostage-taking happened in some obscure corner of the country and away from television cameras, I sincerely doubt that it would have caught as much international attention as it has. I have said time and again, things like this – and, sometimes, even worse – happen everywhere!

Thus, what did national government really have to do with how the rescue attempt went? It was not as though the incident was similar to 9-11, and an attack on the state was being made by a known enemy. For the record, the immediate American response as soon as they realized that the planes crashing into the twin towers was not accidental was to whisk Bush away on Air Force One so that – insulated from any possible threats – he could continue to direct proceedings. That there were even insinuations that President Noynoy should have been at the scene taking a direct hand in the negotiations is just another indication of how ridiculously different our thinking can be from others.

The incident was local to the City of Manila. Resolving it was the jurisdiction of the police of the City of Manila. The City of Manila is several notches below national government. Do we expect national government, then, to intervene in every disturbance to the peace that occurs in every nook and cranny of the nation, even if foreign nationals are involved?

As things happened, the command to arrest Rolando Mendoza’s brother was issued by Mayor Alfredo Lim. He was perfectly within his rights to do so; the police, in our hierarchical structure, report to the City Mayor. The reason was sound; the brother was interfering with negotiations. The manner with which command was executed – perhaps – left a lot to be desired.

There is a protocol for accosting citizens. If this was not followed, as some seemed to suggest, what did it have to do with the President or – for that matter – even Mayor Lim? These were professional policemen who – we would like to think – know how to execute a command. If, indeed, there was something wrong with the way they did, what did it have to do with the current administration, which is no more than a couple of months old?

Controlling what information is passed on to the public as it does, media has been reasonably insulated from blame. Yet, if there was one singular reason why the hostage-taker lost control, it was the sight of his brother being taken into custody being beamed live into the television set inside the bus. In all fairness to the media, though, who could have predicted that Mendoza would react the way he did?

It is admirable, therefore, that the President should very personally take responsibility for something nobody else wanted to. That said, I hope he will not fall into the trap of expectations by thinking he has to dip his fingers into every to-do down the hierarchy and feel responsible for everything that does not quite go according to plan. The danger to micromanagement is that the eventual casualty is always the big picture.

In the hostage-taking crisis, the big picture is that the President was afforded a close-up view of what the police organization can and cannot do. The key to any organization is to have good people in place; yes, even those affiliated with the previous administration. At the end of the day, what matters is whether the job can be done. In the case at hand, it could not.

If changes have to be made within the police, so be it. But changes must never be made for the sake of change alone. Neither must change be made on account of people being affiliated with a previous administration. Instead, change must be made on account of a sincere desire to achieve a common good for the entire constituency, and never to prove the point that the new government can do a better job.

Admirable, though, the President might have been in owning up to responsibility for the failure of the hostage rescue, the truth is that it is also debatable whether he should have. I am afraid that he himself might have inadvertently started the blame game by pointing the finger at the previous administration in his inaugural speech. The inherent danger in doing that was that he would have to – from that point on – measure his own actions and reactions against what the previous administration might have done in similar circumstances.

If he or his people ever fall short, then he will always feel the need to be apologetic and own up to things that – to be perfectly fair – are really way below what the Office of the President of the Republic is for. Applause, then, for the President for his decency; but alarm, too, that he might be missing the big picture.

In fairness to him, it was never his fault. The question begging to be answered now is what has to be done so that something similar does not happen again. Owning up to responsibility, decent though it might have been of him, is just not among the options. A concrete plan to overhaul the police organization and lift the battered morale of its personnel, that will be more like it!

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