Rogue | March 2015
The Mourning After
by Manuel L. Quezon III
As criticism bears down on his administration in the wake of the Mamasapano clash, President Aquino faces the impossibility of extricating his personal history from the national narrative.
THERE is a particularly painful grief that comes from having judged a person, only to discover later on, when it’s too late to matter to that person, that you were wrong. When those coffins emerged from the C-130s in Villamor Airbase, the steady beat of the drums, the constant repetition of “Nearer My God To Thee,” the sound of hundreds wailing as parents, wives, and children—realizing with finality that their loved ones were truly gone—broke the heart of a nation, one that had long ago consigned the uniform of a policeman to being a badge of shame instead of honor. We realized we had been wrong—and not just about one or two, but about many.
These men, in their metal coffins covered with the flag, were heroes.
The people of Zamboanga City knew it best of all. They had a personal relationship with the fallen; they viewed the liberation of their city from rogue elements of MNLF as a deliverance made possible by the SAF. It was a relationship the President shared, for we forget how he had joined them in the field and threw his full support behind them as they fought, with the Armed Forces, to clear the city, street by street. It was for this reason that he was in Zamboanga City soon after the bombs went off: the city was still recovering; its sense of security was still brittle; he wanted to ensure—and for the people of the city to know—that his interest in their recovery and their future security extended beyond past emergencies.
On his way to Zamboanga he began to get news that the operation in Maguindanao had, after its initial success, started to go very wrong. At once, conspiracy theories were hatched. When the President addressed the nation, the blame game took on Olympic proportions. Friend and foe alike joined the fray.
In August 2010, as dusk fell, the President came to our office and quietly told us that the unfolding Quirino Grandstand hostage crisis was reaching its most perilous point. The hostage-taker’s nerves are frayed, he said, and everyone involved will be tired and jittery; things can unfold in a matter of seconds, and the professionals must be primed to move swiftly and effectively to neutralize the hostage-taker if he snaps, and rescue the hostages—otherwise, a bloodbath would ensue. I will never forget how, as we watched the bloodbath he had feared take place on TV, at the back of my mind was the realization that the horror of the moment was compounded by what we knew, which was—the President had foreseen this, and he had been right.
Nor will I ever forget how, in the frantic, anxious minutes after he returned to the Palace, I suggested to him that he needed to go on TV immediately because the country needed a consoler-in-chief. He looked at me and said he owed the country the facts. He proceeded to interrogate the top brass; and only after this did he address the country. I only understood why he said this when it later emerged that prudent measures he had ordered to prevent mass slaughter were not carried out.
In subsequent crises—whether man-made, such as rebel attacks, or acts of nature, such as typhoons and earthquakes—we had the same President, but different reactions from him. His strengths—an understanding of logistics, a long view with regards to the national interest, a vise-like grip on his own emotions, a reluctance to say things for the sake of saying something, and an insistence on rationality and facts when addressing the public—have also been his weaknesses. We (the people), who live life so vividly, are often confounded by dogged determination to do his duty behind the scenes when what we have come to expect is the grand gesture, the clichéd phrase, cathartic unfolding of a familiar script.
When preparations were being made to return the remains of the fallen SAF troopers to Manila, the President instructed that the fullest honors be rendered; that every family’s particular circumstances be gathered, and every possible source within the limits of the law be explored, to provide for each family’s needs. Would he go to Villamor? No, he would not. But why? And he told a story: when they came home from Boston, they barely had any time to be together with their father for the last time: could we imagine what it was like to see his grisly remains for the first time? He would not deny them time. The families must have time to come to terms with their grief. He would not bring a circus to intrude but, instead, see them when his public role was proper—to deliver a eulogy—and his presence would serve a purpose beyond ritual: to assure them concrete plans were in place to provide material security to families confronted not only with grief, but anxiety about their future.
Here is where the vividness of the past collides with the forgetfulness of the present, and where duty defies expectations. The President was crucified for his absence in Villamor; and again, friend and foe alike thundered and shrilled, whether out of disappointment or delight.
The President belongs to a generation that was raised with a very different perspective on public emotion from what we have come to expect from celebrities. That perspective is derived from a life lived in public view; from a constant awareness not only of being constantly watched, but of always of being expected to set an example. This is particularly true of sons. I do not think and, indeed, I strongly doubt that my upbringing was very different from his—and from a very early age it involved a lot of don’ts: when in public, don’t fidget; stand up straight; mind your manners; do your duty, whether it’s enduring a speech, or making one; most of all, show strength and never cry. So thoroughly had this been drilled into me that, on the day of my father’s funeral, his reminders kept echoing in my head, and it was only when they were sealing his tomb, and most mourners had left, that I could cry. I practically collapsed in my aunt’s arms, and to this day, I wonder how she managed to keep us standing.
Consider this instinct, which is so strong in the natural course of things, and what it must be like for those who share the same instincts in the midst of the trauma of tragedy. My father lost his mother, sister, and brother-in-law in an ambush; among my earliest and most vivid memories was his telling me that the only time he had to properly grieve was in the brief time he had with his sister, when he arrived home after having been told the news. After that brief time together, time was not theirs, nor was grief; they were part of a collective experience that is both highly personal—for other relatives, friends, officials, and followers—and yet strangely impersonal, with everything reported, editorialized upon, filmed and photographed.
The President has said time and again that, when his father died, he became the head of the family, the protector of his mother and sisters—not only during times of genuine peril, but also in the years of near-constant political storms and stress. This is a situation that is not conducive to wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, or demonstrating weakness, not just in public, but even in private. It is what made him who he is; it is the only way he knows how to do what he must.
Publicly, it meant he commiserated with the grieving the only way he knew how: in terms of his own loss, only for it to become clear how little anyone else can comprehend how colossal that loss was for him. Here was a very public rupture, indeed. Yet no one was at fault; certainly not those in the midst of grief; not a President confronted with, how unknowable to others, how deep one’s private loss can be; not the public, for whom the personal loss of yesterday had become intertwined with a national story of redemption at once deeply personal, yet which had become, over time, so distant.
We did not elect this President to be another run-of-the-mill leader. Every president ends up, sooner or later, obsessed with history; each one is the product, not only of the history of his or her times, but also of his or her own personal history. That history has been his strength, and at times, his weakness. Most, however, leave nothing to chance, and it is a rare President who takes the long view and possesses the certainty that, when the dust settles and emotions abate, vindication will be his. This surely comes at a high cost—not only politically, but personally. In the end, when he addressed the nation for a second time, he finally showed what he had felt all along, but hadn’t permitted himself, until that moment, to fully reveal.
Yet with the passing of that moment, he must continue to confront what he is: to his mind, someone not permitted the freedom of public emotion. For you will never be alone, never allowed to let go, never permitted to come to terms—until your own time is up, and the next generation steps forward to come to terms with what you had to live with all your life: neither joy nor grief are exempt from being public property.