UNTIL he started shooting the hostages, the man was a seven o’clock news joke.
He was a cop but a disgraced one, condemned for extortion and stripped of all his retirement benefits.
He wanted to be reinstated and to get the authorities’ attention, held hostage foreigners who wanted to see the best that this country could offer.
He was a certified creation of our times—a newsmaker who shot to primetime notoriety and as quickly fizzled to give way to the regular soaps that were displaced by breaking coverage—someone who stepped out from the crowd of nameless others, someone many of us had never heard of, someone we might have met and passed on the street, meriting no comment.
Yet, because he had a gun, because he hated, and because he shot and killed at least eight innocent and unarmed strangers, and terrorized the other survivors—we know his name.
Some of us might even recall that by mid-morning on the day of the incident, the initial reports already identified the armed assailant.
His name didn’t stick then. We could blame how that Monday seemed to cram more than the usual Mondays.
But when the first reports cut in on the predictable flow of our morning, we stationed ourselves before the nearest TV set in our living room, the office conference room, an electronics arcade in the mall, the corner store selling phone load.
We got busy doing what humans do better than other species: be curious about other humans.
We didn’t just want to know how the story would end. We felt more keenly our vantage point by witnessing someone else’s misfortune.
After the incident, we pitched in with all the talk about self-restraint: how the dead man lacked it, how the news media lacked it, how the Hong Kong citizens lacked it.
But during those hours when we kept our TV watch, did we step back and ask ourselves, in between the commercials, bathroom break and channel-switching: should I see this? Should the man with the gun also see this on the bus monitor?
We pointed fingers at journalists after the carnage. Who was at the other end of that accusing finger, being fed more images and information that was needed or understood?
When we first saw the police attempt to get into custody the hostage-taker’s brother, we were pulled in. Everyone was shouting. We were shouting, guessing what was going on, letting our emotions follow the source of the loudest whining. What a story! We were in the story! We were the news!
But when the first deadly eruption broke the silence in the darkened bus, we drew back to the safety of our couches. Silenced, we mumbled about letting the authorities handle the situation. We watched. And wondered when they would resume regular broadcasting.
What did this extreme sport of TV-watching accomplish? Saturate us with information. We became experts and concluded.
This was the extent of our certainty: the man was guilty.
Of murdering the innocent. Of exposing the ill-preparedness of our authorities and the media to deal with a crisis. Of subjecting our nation to the world’s condemnation and ridicule. Of jeopardizing the gains of tourism, our recently defended democracy, the stability of our society.
Did we reexamine who else was reduced to a limp form hanging from the broken glass of a bus door?
Why is it so easy to get hold of a gun in this country?
When does our access to information endanger life?
Why, in the age of instantaneous transmission, are we communicating less?
Why are we blind to the nameless victims of injustice before it’s too late?
If we missed these questions, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. The police asked the TV crews to turn off their lights during the negotiations. Visibility was poor.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 29, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column