“The buck stops with me” could have been a decent response to what the President described as a rhetorical question in a press conference last Wednesday, January 28. Indeed, reporter Lei Alviz’s question “did you give the go signal to this operation” was a rhetorical one, because the obvious answer is “I am the President. I am in charge.”
But this is not what Filipinos heard on live broadcast. Instead the President gave a seemingly glib response. He replied, “‘Sir, can we proceed with the operation?’ I don’t think I was ever asked that question… ‘Sir, can we arrest the man the court ordered to be arrested?’ Can I even say no?” There are not a lot of ways to interpret this response. Simply put, the President is saying he is not at fault.
There remains to be a dearth of information to make sense of what happened in Mamasapano. Important questions about the botched operation have been asked and debates on the peace process have become even more heated.
But Filipinos appear to have reached consensus on an important matter: that it is utterly disrespectful for the commander-in-chief to dodge full responsibility over the deaths of 44 police officers who lost their lives in an operation that seems to have been set up to fail.
Failure of leadership, ethics
A couple of statements from Malacañang, among others, have communicated the most disconcerting messages at a time of political uncertainty.
The first is the President’s claim that he was not directly involved in the high-level operation to capture a member of Jemaah Islamiyah’s central command. If this claim were true, it makes me wonder what other matters of national and global security are not under the President’s watch. If Marwan was a high value target at the top of FBI’s terror watch list, I would at least expect the commander-in-chief to be in a war room monitoring the situation.
If however, the President lied – that he actually had knowledge of the operation as reported by media outfits – then we deserve a full and transparent accounting of what happened and who should be held accountable. Anything less than this is spit on the grave of the fallen police officers, as well as all the other nameless and faceless casualties of this encounter.
The second is the senseless hair splitting from Palace spokespersons who attempted to justify the President’s absence at the arrival honors last Thursday, January 29. They picked on the word “skipping” as “skipping the arrival honors” implies that the event was originally on the President’s schedule.
Unfortunately, tragic events cannot be planned and therefore calendared on the President’s schedule. That is why ethical judgment is crucial. At a time of collective mourning, the head of state has the distinct responsibility and the symbolic power to personify the public’s collective grief and inspire confidence that the SAF officers did not die in vain. Instead of acting like Obama who cancelled his appointments to honor the caskets of troops as they landed at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, Aquino behaved more like Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta who chose to attend the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi while his ministers condoled with the families of those who died in al Shabaab’s terror attack in Nairobi.
The politics of absence
Perhaps it is our fault, as citizens, for still naively expecting that things will be different in yet another tragedy. By now we must have gotten used to the President’s habit of being absent in places where his symbolic presence is most needed.
When an explosion happens in a posh residential complex, expect him to be there in two hours. But when it is the anniversary of the typhoon that made the strongest landfall in recent history, expect him to lead the commemoration in a comfortable place with a friendlier crowd. The tweets and memes that trended globally (#NasaanAngPangulo) playfully yet precisely captured this sentiment, that there indeed, has always been something amiss with the president’s politics of presence.
Why does his public expression of heartfelt commiseration matter so much? Why should we feel concerned that families of slain police officers expressed skepticism over the President’s sincerity at the necrological service last Friday, January 30? Why can’t we, as some Aquino supporters suggest, “extend our respect and understanding” to our President as “he is only human”?
The answer, I reckon, is this: It matters because it is the President’s humanity that is under scrutiny.
Power and apologies
In our interviews for a research project on Tacloban’s recovery, we have talked to numerous respondents who are angry that the President opted not to spend time in Tacloban. “Being here is important so he can actually see what’s happening… and understand how we feel,” says one respondent. “At least Justin Bieber cared enough to visit,” another said in jest. Being visible at the right place and at the right time in moments of national tragedy is not a mundane matter. Being there is an act of solidarity, a meaningful attempt to understand the other’s pain and an assurance at a time of uncertainty that we are here together to look out for each other.
For a leader of the nation, being there is also to literally face the consequences of one’s actions (or inaction). Having leaders stand straight and directly look at caskets are collective rituals’ way of confronting power, making explicit the costs of war and setting the tone of the nation’s indignation that, as Col. Danilo Pamonag puts it, 44 will never just be a number.
Recently, international news has featured global leaders that have taken full responsibility for a range of tragedies and scandals. From Air Asia CEO Toni Fernandez who said “I am the leader of this company; I take responsibility” for the ill-fated QZ8501 to Korean Air CEO Cho Yang-Ho who asked “for the public’s generous forgiveness” for the shame and trouble caused by his “daughter’s foolish conduct.”
I am skeptical that we will get a similar act of humility and accountability in the Philippines. But thinking about the last time this happened in this country makes me cringe, as my last memory of someone taking responsibility, albeit partially, was when a woman who stole an election said “I am sorry.” – Rappler.com