MANILA, Philippines—Punitive action against those involved in the Aug. 23 hostage fiasco may provide a closure to a sorry episode, but simply pinpointing scapegoats is neither healthy nor advisable to the national psyche, counseling experts said.
The best response, the experts said, is to overhaul our collective thinking on personal and social responsibilities and find solutions.
“If you get the scapegoat and then hang him on a post and flagellate him publicly, that is mob psychology,” said Dr. Bernardino Vicente, psychiatrist and chief of the National Center for Mental Health.
The unruly mob finds it more convenient to identify a scapegoat that people can vent their ire on, Vicente explained.
“We would say, ‘Ibitay ito!’ (Hang him) as if (doing so) would relieve or solve our problems. People would be appeased for the meantime but (it) will not really solve our problem,” he warned.
To date, at least three members of the House of Representatives had called for Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo’s resignation after the Manila police bungled the rescue of a busload of Hong Kong tourists held hostage by dismissed Senior Insp. Rolando Mendoza at Rizal Park. Eight hostages died.
Two days after the incident, four Special Weapons and Tactics personnel were relieved and Chief Supt. Rodolfo Magtibay, director of the Manila Police District, took a voluntary leave.
House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman said Communication Secretaries Herminio Coloma and Ricky Carandang were accountable for failing to rein in the media.
The word “scapegoat” has Biblical origins. In Jewish tradition, a goat is let loose in the wilderness on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, after a high priest symbolically lays the sins of the people on its head.
But a priest-scholar noted that even before the Jews established this ritual, the story of Creation itself already showed man’s tendency to pass the buck.
“Go back to Adam and Eve. The Lord asks ‘Where are you’ because they were hiding. Adam says ‘The woman made me do it.’ Eve points to the serpent,” said Fr. Melchor Montalbo Jr., Ph.D., STL, author of several local books on theology and philosophy.
That’s where the blame game started, he said.
Satirist William Safire, in a New York Times column, gave several definitions to the word scapegoat, including one meaning “entirely innocent and used as a proxy for those who are really responsible.”
A fall guy, on the other hand, “is somewhat complicit but takes the blame for others,” he said.
“Situations play a role in the blaming scenario,” Vicente said. “For example, if you have people who are perceived, even if not necessarily knowledgeable or authoritative figures, (who) are expected to know the (situation), they can be blamed, especially the high officials, that’s why Robredo or (Manila Mayor Alfredo) Lim are being singled out. Some even put the blame on the President.”
In creating a five-member fact-finding committee, President Benigno Aquino III said he expected an “unassailable report” pointing to the “things I inherited and what the corrections are” to “institutional problems” or “organizational issues.”
But before the committee held its first hearing, the President mentioned that a National Police Commission official who allegedly spoke and made damaging statements at the height of the crisis would be “disciplined.”
Asked whether his close friend, Undersecretary Rico E. Puno, who was in charge of the PNP at the time of the crisis, would be held accountable, Aquino said: “Partly.”
Vicente said familiarity with an accountable person can sometimes modify or neutralize the demand for his accountability.
“Let’s say you’re riding a car with your friend driving and an accident occurs. You sustain some injuries but since he is your friend, you’re not going to sue him,” he said.
“But if you’re riding a taxi and the driver has an accident, even if you sustain just a few scratches, chances are you will blame the driver for your injuries with a lawsuit to match,” he added.
Vicente said that universally, the blaming system “happens simply because there is a lack of accountability of people. Which is what is happening to us, no one is accountable.”
“We are addressing (our problems) very punitively instead of looking at systems or devising a system that would prevent (a crisis) from happening. We’re (content) chopping off the heads of people left and right,” Vicente noted.
Refusal to accept responsibility for the incident constitutes dishonesty, Montalbo pointed out.
“Pope John Paul II said we have to be responsible for our actions. Blame-tossing indicates that a person is inauthentic, when you dodge the bullet and refuse to accept responsibility,” the priest said.
Montalbo said this tendency to look for scapegoats is linked to our collective “inability to be objective.”
“Tell the Filipino that he is wrong and he gets mad at you. He cannot be objective, he cannot accept that he makes mistakes … So what do we do? Instead of owning up to the (mistake), we get an ally or pass it to someone else. If you have not done up to par in service, I think you should be honest enough to say so,” Montalbo noted.
Need for solutions
“While punishing the guilty is provided by law, we need to find solutions. In the aftermath of this hostage drama, the first thing would probably be to replace those who are responsible,” the priest said.
“For example, why can’t we equip the SWAT, train them better and give them the right equipment? Big corporations invest
in training, why can’t the government do that? The focus should be on improvement,” Montalbo explained.
“We need to change our mentality, our behavior, the way we look at things. Singaporeans follow traffic rules, why can’t we? The American sees a traffic light as a guarantee of his freedom, we see it as an imposition on us,” he added.
Vicente noted that the hostage drama was spurred by inefficient systems in the government, giving it little choice but to improve.
“Why did Mendoza decide to hostage the tourists in the first place? He was also blaming others, wasn’t he? To relieve his frustration, he projected it to someone else. So his dismissal was not his fault but that of the Ombudsman. Thinking so lessens his frustration and makes (reality) more convenient,” Vicente said.
“We have to study the justice system (if also to determine) how to avoid people from perceiving … that they were not given justice. I can empathize with (Mendoza’s) feeling of hopelessness and helplessness with the justice system. I can understand how it feels to be dismissed without confronting one’s accuser,” Vicente said.
“There are many things we can learn from the situation and it is hoped that we study (them) because when people hide these things, they will not be corrected,” he added.
Cathy Yamsuan, Phil. Daily Inquirer