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Sisyphus’ Lament

‘Laglag-bala’: How government fails in Facebook age

/ 12:24 AM November 09, 2015

SINGAPORE—“Laglag-bala” has made us Filipinos an international laughingstock. It could have been solved well before it degenerated into mass hysteria had our leaders been solving the right problem.

Reports of bullets at airports are not new. The Inquirer had recorded intermittent incidents over the last six months. Even at the hysteria’s peak last Nov. 3, when 77-year-old Filipino-American Santiago Peñaflorida was stopped, three other travelers admitted to carrying bullets as charms.

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Transport officials thus have legitimate basis to remind that there are careless, superstitious and plain stupid people in the world. Unfortunately, this did not address the separate fear of an extortion syndicate operating amid such idiots.

On Sept. 17, 20-year-old American missionary Lane Michael White was detained for six days after airport security allegedly found a .22-caliber bullet in his bag. White claimed airport personnel planted it and attempted to extort P30,000.

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Gloria Ortinez, a 56-year-old overseas Filipino worker returning to Hong Kong, was then arrested last October. “Nanay Gloria,” as her praiseworthy UP lawyer Spocky Farolan calls her, not only reported extortion. She was allegedly asked to pick up the bullet, thus placing her fingerprints on it. The bullet presented in court was allegedly not the same as the one photographed at the airport. Forced to stay to defend herself, she risks losing her job.

On Oct. 28, as Ortinez’s story circulated, Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian, vice chair of the House tourism committee, decried “laglag-bala” as an international embarrassment and as an attack on OFWs. More legislators spoke out each day, but transport officials asked the public not to blow the matter out of proportion, denying there was a “laglag-bala” syndicate.

As late as Nov. 1, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda reported that measures would be taken but various reports were still needed to be validated. For example, a Japanese stopped last October admitted he had come from a firing range.

This lackadaisical nonresponse sparked mass hysteria more than any actual arrest. By Oct. 31, officials had no excuse for overlooking the panic. A photo of two Caucasian backpackers with their bags covered in plastic wrap went viral. Photos of Filipinos’ bags with plastic wrap and angry notes to airport security filled social media and then newspapers.

By Nov. 1, chief public defender Persida Acosta was publicly offering legal assistance. Infographics listing precautions went viral, along with a shocking video of a man from General Santos City, demonstrating how to open a suitcase zipper with a pencil, throw knives inside and reseal the zipper, all in seconds. Alleged scam insiders and past victims were interviewed and the National Bureau of Investigation began an independent probe.

Gallows humor was the surest barometer, with a programmer launching a “laglag-bala” smartphone game, TheSoshalNetwork.com parodying the precaution lists, and memes of US President Barack Obama, carrying a plastic wrapped suitcase for his upcoming visit to the Philippines, spreading. The mix of outrage and bewilderment soon reached Fox News, British Broadcasting Corp. and Sydney Morning Herald, even meriting a sarcastic skit on Japanese TV.

Our government clearly failed to confront the true problem of widespread paranoia, which by Halloween had become a far greater problem than any actual extortion ring. This was painfully obvious to anyone with a Facebook account, but our leaders treated “laglag-bala” as an intellectual puzzle and a legal issue, instead of as a manifestation of the public’s glaring lack of faith in government.

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The alleged oppression of a humble, motherly OFW is outrageous on a far more visceral level.

Leaders failed to empathize with how every single Filipino could visualize being the next Nanay Gloria, and how helpless one would feel if accosted at the airport. They appeared numb to how much more vulnerable OFWs and their families felt mere weeks before Christmas, and to the fear of losing one’s job and having a criminal record. OFWs, anyway, are economically important but politically disorganized.

Why was it so difficult to reassure a panicked nation? For a senior leader or President Aquino himself to personally appear at the airport to announce additional safeguards such as increased CCTV and “no touch” rules pending the NBI’s report? To personally review Nanay Gloria’s case and send her on the next flight to Hong Kong if she is indeed no threat to national security?

While our national leaders appeared as decisive as headless chickens, Davao residents reported an increased police presence at their airport, backed by Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s promise to make extortionists eat bullets. Immediate national responses were announced too late on Nov. 2, with absolutely no sense of urgency. One worries how we would manage the likes of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus outbreak that gripped Seoul last June.

In “The King’s Speech,” predicting how radio would change leadership, King George V advised: “In the past, all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them.” Social media is even more powerful than radio. It conveys raw feeling along with information, and does so real time and interactively. Technology binds us ever closer, amplifying both inspiration and terror.

Modern leaders must thus give immediate, unmistakable and decisive responses to brewing problems, even if they must announce more detailed solutions later. In our case, one minute of statesmanship should have nipped in the bud two weeks of panic.

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React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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