MANILA, Philippines—The joy and relief were first expressed in Rome, by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. “Fr. Giancarlo Bossi has been freed … I’m truly emotional, happy,” he said. Similar sentiments were expressed by Pope Benedict XVI, who greeted the news with “great joy,” according to a Vatican statement. Happy noises were also made by our government, but something strange happened when Bossi was brought to Malacañang to meet President Macapagal-Arroyo.
When Bossi recounted his brief conversation with the President, the priest revealed that after congratulating him, the President laid on a guilt trip. “She congratulated me and then she told me that a lot of people died,” he said. Apparently, the guilt trip worked. Referring to the Marines who lost their lives in an ambush during search-and-rescue operations, the priest said, “I think that in a sense, I feel responsible.”
What the President said to Bossi was not only crass, it was unforgivable. It was not only tasteless, it was mean-spirited and obviously further traumatized the priest. It betrayed an emotional coldness, and a transactional attitude that is deserving of the strongest condemnation. Her remark was a national disgrace.
Bossi was the victim. His being kidnapped—and the weeks it took to secure his freedom—can be laid firmly at the doorstep of his captors and the government officials in charge of liberating him. His kidnapping and the ordeal that followed weren’t his fault; whatever efforts and sacrifices were made, by our civilian and military authorities, weren’t in the nature of a favor, but rather, in the line of duty.
That lives were lost by people working for Bossi’s release is a matter for our government to recognize. But it isn’t something for the President of the Philippines to pointedly remind the beneficiary of those efforts, namely Bossi himself, about. The implication of such a reminder is that he owes her, or at least, should be grateful and feel guilty, for something he had a right never to lose: his freedom.
Shaking Bossi’s hand, congratulating him for being liberated, then reminding him his freedom has come at the price of lives sidestep the reality that Bossi’s liberty and the lives of those Marines were senselessly lost, not because of anything Bossi ever did, but because of the essentially lawless nature of large parts of Mindanao, and our armed forces’ poor command-and-control. Not to mention what is emerging as a scandal involving military munitions. Given all this, the President’s “reminder” also amounted to no less than a contemptible evasion of responsibility.
By all means, if Bossi has said thanks—and said prayers—for the soldiers who died during the search-and-rescue operations, everyone agrees it was the right and Christian thing to do. Just as he’s publicly forgiven his captors: that was a statement one expects of a member of the clergy. What the President did, though, was along the lines of the rescuer of a rape victim telling the victim that policemen died in the performance of their duties. It’s an insult to the victim and the cops who died doing their duty.
The bravery of soldiers and policemen who die in the line of duty is worthy of admiration, precisely because they die, not to gain glory, or earn praise or applause, but because it’s what they’re expected to do. Every instance of kidnapping represents, first of all, a failure in the enforcement of law and order. The rescue of kidnap victims—as well as the apprehension, and conviction of kidnappers in the courts—represents a rectification of a wrong. In any case, the gratitude of a victim who is rescued is something officials should welcome. It isn’t something they should demand, or even expect.
The President’s public statements said all the right things. They were written for her, though. What she herself said—unless she comes forward and calls Bossi a liar—means her public statements weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. And her personal reaction means she has so personalized everything—governance, law and order, and what she sees as the motivations for anything our officials do—that it would be wise to warn the public:
Stay home. Lock your doors. If anything happens to you, if government lifts a finger to help you, watch out. You will not only be blamed for your misfortune, you will be reminded to never forget that your rescue was a favor.