Conspicuous By His Absence

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The long gray line of caskets at Villamor bore more than the bodies of fallen heroes. They were fathers, brothers, sons who lost their lives in a bungled operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. They were surrounded by grieving families and mourning colleagues. The Filipino people, too, grieved and mourned. Whatever hopes for peace shriveled, whatever dreams for accord withered.

We were all moved by the stories of loss. We too, shared in the tears that welled up in the eyes of families who, in that moment, lost their sons. Of wives who became widows. Of children who became orphans.

Conspicuous by his absence: President Benigno S. Aquino III.

*   *   *

When you really think about it, nothing was really lost because Aquino didn’t appear in Villamor Air Base that day. The ceremonies went on. The dead were honored, the families grieved, and the nation was in mourning. The stain to all of it, though, was the President’s absence: he was elsewhere inaugurating a new car plant (or something like that), or that to appear at Villamor would be “politicking,” to “break protocol,” and so on.

For all the calls of sobriety and the benefit of hindsight invoked by the President’s supporters, those two things sort of indict the President’s absence as well. Inauguration ceremonies for car plants can wait (as with other symbolic and ceremonial guest-of-honor duties that come with being President. Like, say, inaugurating car manufacturing plants).

The Commander-in-Chief should be there paying his respects in person: it is his men who died. The presence of the President during the arrival honors for the fallen SAF is a very reasonable ask. The President is taken to task for the unreasonableness of his failure to do so. Everyone else would have understood. It’s not even a matter of political acumen, but a matter of being in touch enough with your role as President to do what you have to do.

True, grief is private and we should give the bereaved all the space they need to mourn. True, there’s nothing to gain – or to suggest – in below-the-belt attacks on the President’s person. True, the value of the President’s presence is, for all intents and purposes, symbolic. There is no utility to it other than political ones, in the same way that wakes are a great way to garner votes (go visit a funeral parlor, and count the number of wreaths in wakes that came from the mayor or something).

Yet that symbolic action in a grisly, public death is of far greater value than Senate investigations. This wasn’t an ordinary death: these were deaths that came by way of a skirmish. Fourty-four SAF operatives died. Sixteen MILF fighters died. More than fighters and soldiers, these were fathers, brothers, sons.

It had “Charge of the Light Brigade” written all over it. It was covered by news media. It had significant international attention.

These are things that demand, at the barest minimum, the President’s presence.

*   *   *

Moments of national grief and struggle demand the physical presence of its leaders: to reassure, to mourn, and to stand by the people. It’s a largely ceremonial task: perhaps archaic and backward to some, and parochial to others. But it is, nonetheless, part of the duties of a President. One bound to the morals of his position, and the character that his office requires. It is, through and through, duty.

History and literature are replete with examples of this duty in action: Leonidas and his 300 men, Spartacus at Capua, Mark Antony before the witnesses to Caesar’s murder, Gandhi in Dandi, FDR before Congress, Churchill in the trenches. And to that point, our history and everyday experience is full of examples of leaders who accomplish the same task, albeit with cheap acting and overacting.

It was never about stirring eloquence and passionate oratory, but mere presence: “I am here, I mourn with you, and I give you my condolences.” It is all but the human thing to do, especially when you’re the President and things of that magnitude happen to those who defend this land.

It’s called “mandate.” It’s called “public trust.” The most concrete that we could have had it was the image of President Aquino looking over that long gray line of flag-draped caskets.

For the most part, I think that we Filipinos improvise our politics: we do so much when so little politics supports us, and we disengage when there’s too much politics going on. That relationship has eroded enough, I think, for us to manage our expectations from Presidents enough to settle for the barest minimum: for the President to be with us in our collective hour of need.

But it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen in a storm-ravaged Tacloban, and it didn’t happen in Villamor.

And there’s where the anger struck a chord: this is the barest minimum expectation we have of our elected officials and public leaders. It’s that small of an ask. It isn’t even unreasonable to ask the President to act accordingly as the President. To bungle that speaks volumes about everything else: the excuses, the downplays, the spin pale in comparison to the President’s conspicuous absence.

All it was: “When we needed him the most, our leader wasn’t there.”

* * *

The long gray line of caskets at Villamor bore more than the bodies of fallen heroes. They were fathers, brothers, sons who lost their lives in a bungled operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

Nothing beside remains: not the belated explanations, not the downplaying by the President’s men, not the impassioned or angry or snarky defense by those who have, in a way, excused him from that oversight. I think, for the most part, we can agree to disagree on that one.

At least for me, it’s never a question of who the best President is for the task. We can argue about that at length, but it doesn’t change the fact that we have one, and that won’t change for a while.

It’s more of a question of those times when we need the presence of Presidents the most. That moment was one of them. That says a lot.

Conspicuous by his absence: President Benigno S. Aquino III.

3 comments on “Conspicuous By His Absence”

    • Piyaya
    • January 31, 2015
    Reply

    So true… very well written article. Thanks!

  1. Reply

    Unfortunately and tragically true with echoes of a Shakespearian Tragedy

    • Kyla San Jose
    • February 2, 2015
    Reply

    Ano nga ba ang tunay niyang dahilan for being a no show? Parang napaka out of character ni Presidente ang ganun!

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