The Luneta hostage crisis is a classic example of how a seemingly-ordinary criminal or non-political event becomes a major political crisis. Such were the Sipadan kidnapping case and the priest kidnapping cases in the South. We have our own such experience–remember the Flor Contemplacion case and the Sarah Balabagan case which forced the government to make extraordinary initiatives in behalf of the person in question. The common feature of all these seemingly non-political events is the involvement of foreigners as victims.
Though serious at the time (and were treated as such by the government), the previous incidents never reached a point where these threatened the survival of the host government or the relations with concerned states or governments. These were adeptly handled and prevented from becoming so.
Foreigners, whether as groups or as individuals, as victims of criminal acts is a fact of life in an era of globalism and the global community. Even as part of political statements, these are all too common.
What is therefore significant when raised within the context of domestic political alignments–when politicians go beyond the logical or public interest and start banging on the doors of the ruling power–is their political motive. In the case of the Luneta hostage crisis, the chorus for laying the direct responsibility for bungling the handling of the hostage-taking and consequent call for President Aquino’s resignation by the manifest opposition becomes suspect. Even the opinion of some in the media to the effect that Aquino failed his “first test” is off the mark.
Of course, command responsibility can be adduced to him–particularly from the point of view of foreign states–and this he recognized when he publicly apologized. However, this is far different from the question who really are directly responsible for the mistakes and errors on that day. This is the subject, in fact, of the current investigation by the de Lima committee.
Presidential leadership in a democracy is democratic. It is a leadership that is responsive to opinions from below and the constituency it leads and it draws its strength from this relationship. Necessarily, this means giving a lot of leeway to subordinate authorities to assume delegated responsibilities. Ultimately, however, the buck, so to speak, stops with the appointing power, usually the President.
In the Luneta case, the issue of presidential responsibility lies in determining the level of state handling of the crisis and the determination of responsible people to handle it. There is no requirement that he himself will have to handle it. That it was handled in accordance with existing protocol (the local crisis committee and the local police) was an understandable decision (even if seen by observers as an error later).
That nobody seriously questioned the handling up to that point in late afternoon–that resulted in some of the hostages being freed–points to the seemingly correct decision of using the protocol as guide. The lapses that were noted later, such as in the role of the media, the use of the hostage-taker’s brother, and the handling of evidences, can be laid down to the lax implementation of the protocol.
However, the first mistake I think where there should have been a presidential intervention, was in the decision to handle the incident locally. While there is basis to do so, including the fact that the Manila mayor is a former general and presumably has the background for crisis management, it is a risky one.
The hostage-taker is a former officer from the Manila Police Department and the victims are mainly from a foreign country. Letting the Manila authorities and MPD handle the negotiation and the whole crisis invites the possibility of colored judgments and decisions. The presence of foreigners also lend the crisis a diplomatic and international dimensions–beyond the competence of local officials. These factors would logically lead to a decision to handle the crisis on the national level.
However, the point now is to handle the post-crisis situation. The president–by his act of apology to the governments and people of Hongkong and China, accepting command responsibility, ordering a transparent and immediate investigation, and doing other damage-control measures–proved his own leadership. The people, of course, are waiting for heads to roll. The crisis really calls for this.
The Luneta hostage crisis must be seen within the context of a new Aquino government still in the throes of adjusting to its governance role.