As I See It

Mass murder again on New Year’s Eve

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This is again that time of the year when government authorities issue press releases warning against exploding firecrackers but do nothing serious to prevent the manufacture of unsafe fireworks or using them before, during and after New Year’s Eve.

The police raid some hoards of fireworks and confiscate them with much fanfare. Afterwards, when the media are not looking, they sell them on the black market and pocket the money. Local government agents inspect firecracker factories scattered in shacks on former ricefields and the stores lining the MacArthur Highway in Bocaue and other nearby towns in Bulacan and see nothing wrong because they have been slipped some paper bills and big packages of fireworks. The Department of Health also issues press releases warning against the dangers of exploding firecrackers. And government hospitals also issue their own press releases that they are ready for the deluge of dying and injured during what should be a time of joy.

But come New Year’s Eve, the whole country again erupts into a paroxysm of noise, light, color and bedlam as millions of firecrackers explode and fireworks light up the sky in a rainbow of colors. This is like burning millions of pesos of paper money. Millions gone with a bang and the swish of colorful lights.

The firecrackers blast many fingers but the most dangerous of all are the irresponsible gun owners who fire their guns into the air, not caring that their bullets will fall back to earth and may hit somebody. When one of these wayward bullets hits you on the head—which is the most vulnerable to bullets coming from above—you are dead. The police also warn against firing guns into the air and make a big show of taping the barrels of police service firearms. Big deal! The paper tapes are easily removed, the guns fired and the tapes replaced afterwards.

And what about the civilian gun owners who show off to their neighbors by firing their guns into the air? Every year, some innocent people die of bullets fired into the air by irresponsible gun owners. But nobody is ever called to account for the deaths. This is one more reason to issue strict rules on gun ownership.

After the New Year’s Eve revelry, the whole country is like a war zone with gunsmoke polluting the air and scores of revelers groaning in pain with blasted limbs and bullet and stab wounds in hospital emergency wards. Surgeons and other doctors and interns and nurses in government hospitals are overworked on New Year’s Eve and until the next day.

And then there are the fires. As sure as night follows day, there will be fires set off by fireworks and some unfortunate souls will perish in them. Firemen are also overworked on New Year’s Eve.

After the mayhem, there will be the obligatory hand-wringing and finger-pointing and promises of “Never again.” But after the dead are buried and the injured limbs amputated, everything will be forgotten. Long before the next Christmas season, the death factories of Bulacan and Cebu will again churn out their “weapons of destruction.” What did the press releases do? Nothing except give the appearance of public officials doing their jobs. But they are not.

If they really want to do their duty of assuring the safety of their people, these officials will, once and for all, stop the manufacture of unsafe fireworks.

One look at any firecracker factory and anybody can see that they are disasters waiting to happen. Workers, many of them children and young men, work with gunpowder in open sheds, their bodies coated with the gunpowder. One spark and the whole factory goes shebang! along with the workers. That is why the factories are spread far apart in open fields. So that when one shack explodes, it won’t start a chain reaction among the other shacks. That is why the shacks are made of flimsy materials. So that when it blows up, the factory owner doesn’t lose much in construction materials and a new shack can be built quickly with very little expense.

But in the Philippines, New Year’s Eve is not New Year’s Eve without the fireworks. You cannot stop people from buying fireworks, clandestinely or not. And once they have the fireworks, you cannot stop them from lighting them. Indeed, there are people, including children, who eagerly await New Year’s Eve because of the fireworks. Some actually book rooms on the upper floors of hotels to watch the fireworks displays erupting in the skies on New Year’s Eve.

The key is not to stop revelers from lighting fireworks but to force manufacturers to make safe ones. If other countries can do it, why can’t we? That is why fireworks from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are smuggled into the Philippines. There is a demand for them here because they are safer even if more expensive. We can make safe fireworks if we only take the trouble to learn how to.

Why does not the government send some people to other countries—the actual workers, not government officials—to study how they make their fireworks safe? When they come back, they can then teach the manufacturers and their workers how to make their products, and the process of making them, really safe. The government can organize seminars and compel them to attend. Only after they have learned the safety rules should they be given the license to operate.

And the national government should step in, not leave it all to local government units where relatives and compadres look the other way while their friends prepare to commit mass murder.

The New Year’s Eve massacres have to stop. And it should be now, not later.

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