Coulda, woulda, shoulda

Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This was published in the September 1, 2010 edition of the Business Mirror, page A6.

Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair. – George Burns

Last week’s tragedy spawned a lot of expert opinion. It came from everywhere—Congress, blogs, social network sites, talk shows, opinion columns, street corners, bars, whorehouses—everywhere you can shake a stick at.

They all said “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” I agreed with most of the opinions expressed but I disagreed with two in particular: criticism of the Palace aide who screened the call of Hongkong chief executive Donald Tsang and criticism of the negotiators for not giving in to Capt. Mendoza’s demands.

The Palace aide did the right thing. He referred a cold call from someone claiming to be Donald Tsang to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). He was screening a call to the president not hiding behind bureaucratic procedure. Was he expected to verify the authenticity of the call himself? Was he supposed to recognize Mr. Tsang by his voice (Dapat bang nabosesan niya si Tsang)?”

It could have been a prank call similar to the one Sarah Palin fell for when she was a candidate for US vice president—a radio talk-show jockey pretending to be French president Nicholas Sarkozy called her up and aired their conversation live. What if that happened to President Aquino because some Palace aide decided to cut through red tape this one time, do we have a jolly laugh at his and the country’s expense?

You can blame the DFA for not getting in touch with Mr. Tsang immediately—it could have ordered the Philippine consul general in Hongkong to see the man personally if, as the department claimed, his phone was busy. Or you can blame Mr. Tsang for not following protocol, ignorance is no excuse, but that would be rubbing salt. But you cannot blame the Palace aide for screening calls to the president. Those who knock him for following protocol do not know the meaning of the word and why it’s there in the first place. They should look it up.

The same so-called experts also faulted the negotiators for not giving in to Capt. Mendoza’s demands. “Lives could have been saved,” they said.

Let’s play out that ideal scenario:

Negotiator: “Capt. Mendoza, I’m happy to announce that your demands have been met. Will you now let the hostages go, please?”

Capt. Mendoza: “Yes, of course. And thank you for giving me justice… and lunch.” (Turns to hostages) “Sorry for the inconvenience, you can all go.”

Negotiator: (Shaking hands with Capt. Mendoza) “You’re a reasonable guy after all. Let’s all pose for a group picture in front of the bus.”

Hostages: (Chanting) “Group hug, group hug…”

Seriously folks, hostage situations do not usually end well. For hostages, it’s hope for the best. For hostage-takers, it’s surrender or be killed. How many hostage-takers have you seen walking away scot-free? Well okay, with the exception of those bandits who kidnapped tourists in Dos Palmas, Palawan.

Anyway, hostage negotiations are mind games; that’s why their outcome is always “iffy.” There is no sure-fire way to deal with hostage-takers. Although there are some methods that serve as models, everything, at the end of the day, has to be done by “feel.” That’s why there is not much negotiators can do other than humor a hostage-taker to exhaustion and peaceful surrender or to distraction and neutralization.

Last Monday’s negotiators risked their lives by going to the bus and trying to talk some sense and humanity into Capt. Mendoza. They didn’t make him kill innocent people; he chose to kill them.

There is one other thing I disagree with and that is blaming Gloria Arroyo for the tragedy because she didn’t leave President Aquino with a well-equipped and well-trained police force. Aquino is now in charge, not Gloria; he must do with what he’s got.

Still Gloria’s minions need not seize on last Monday’s tragedy as proof that Gloria is better at hostage situations. Remember Dos Palmas? How long did that take and, in addition to Guillermo Sobero who was beheaded, how many hostages and soldiers were killed before Gloria got Gracia Burnham rescued?

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