Truth interred

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The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.

SHAKESPEARE wasn’t referring to the consequences of either good or evil, but to evil’s being remembered more than the good. That might have been true in his time, which was 400 years ago. Today the opposite’s more the case, and that’s true of even the most evil men (and women), who, once safely in the ground, are often remembered for their good deeds and/or qualities more than for the bad.

While the most that’s been said about Adolf Hitler is that he restored German pride (at least for some 12 years) and loved dogs, the one man demonstrators used to compare to the Fuhrer has been a bit more fortunate. Among other accolades, the late Ferdinand Marcos, insist some Filipinos, also built roads and diversified the country’s energy resources.

Call it sentimental, call it soft- headed, but Filipinos do their utmost to find something, anything, that’s good in the dead — particularly, it seems, when the late, then- despised but now-lamented one was a government official.

It makes sense, in a way. In life, a government official in a country whose experience with government hasn’t been too happy is relentlessly criticized, insulted, called various names, held up to ridicule, made the butt of jokes and generally disrespected. But once he’s dead, almost uniformly do his friends and foes alike assume a respectful and somber expression and mutter the usual “condolences,” followed by an attempt to recall, no matter how great the effort required, the virtues of the once demonized but now angelic dead.

It’s one way of compensating for the enthusiasm his or her enemies had displayed when attacking him, which they now suspect might not have been always fair, but one suspects that it’s also an expression of relief: he or she won’t be around anymore to make our lives difficult or even miserable.

What follows, anyway, is usually an orgy of praise and paeans to the deceased, in the Philippines thanks first of all to the media, whose practitioners may have been, only yesterday, accusing the late one of every crime known to man, but who’re now tripping over each other recalling how virtuous he was, how devoted to his family, how decent, law- abiding, God-fearing, cheerful and heroic.

The country’s seeing some of that excess in the aftermath of the death of former Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes. One newspaper devoted its entire front page last Wednesday to six items on General Reyes, for example, while the TV networks have been trying to outdo each other in devoting entire days to reporting who came to the Reyes wake, getting sound bytes from the more prominent, interviewing friends and associates, etc.

Only the day before Reyes seemed to have killed himself, the same media organizations were devoting almost the same space and time to reporting what was going on in the Senate hearings on the plea bargain agreement between the Ombudsman’s office and former Armed Forces comptroller Carlos F. Garcia. The agreement allows the latter to evade the plunder charge earlier filed against him for his allegedly pocketing hundreds of millions in government funds. Reyes was mentioned during one hearing and made an appearance in another.

Literally overnight, however, as important as it was to public enlightenment, the story on the hearings receded into the background to give way to human interest stories that, whether intentionally or not, began shifting public attention away from the seriousness of the claims that former AFP budget officer George Rabusa had been making. One news program even aired and provoked demands that the Senate stop its hearings on the military corruption that allows hundreds of millions to be lost on “going away” and “welcome” presents, and makes plunder so incredibly easy to commit.

That Reyes seemed to have died by his own hand, meanwhile, added another dimension to the sympathetic media coverage, which has included, among others, the usual “weeping mother” interviews with friends and relatives.

And yet, media protocol in the coverage of suicides mandates the handling of suicide reports with restraint, and in a straightforward manner. Among the reasons for caution is to prevent giving the impression that taking one’s own life is somehow heroic, manly and indicative of strength of will, and would earn the suicide media attention and approval. The kind of reporting we’ve been seeing since Tuesday could be encouraging those already on the edge — and there is no way of telling how many are, for some reason or another, in that state — to kill themselves. The media assume, and qualify the term suicide with the word “apparent” or “likely,” that Reyes had indeed died by his own hand — and yet have violated well established ethical and professional norms in covering suicides.

Equally troublesome is the media tendency to speculate on Reyes’ state of mind, his reasons for his apparent suicide, and even who’s to blame for it (as the weekend approached, the Senate was turning into the villain responsible). While nothing much can be gained from it, the cost of this mindlessness is to bury under tons of verbal garbage the need to get to the bottom of the corruption metastasizing in an institution that claims national security as its exclusive mandate.

Reyes may or may not have benefitted from the rot in the AFP, and he might indeed be as virtuous, and his accusers and even the entire Senate as vile, as the media coverage of this sorry episode in the life of this nation has been implying since Tuesday afternoon. This is nevertheless one instance in which the preoccupation with the good the living often bestow on the dead will serve no one except the evil creatures that, Reyes is said to have told a friend, wanted his assurance that he would not inform on them. Caught in the web of criminality, greed and corruption that has made it so desperately poor, this country can’t afford to have the truth interred with Reyes’ bones.

(BusinessWorld)

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