Ninoy Aquino: A hero for all seasons


By Nene Pimentel – It is the sum of his selfless deeds that gives meaning to August 21 as a celebratory occasion, to remind ourselves of the meaning of his life and especially of his epic death.

The great French dramatist Jean Anouilh (1910-87) incisively categorized human beings into two classes. He said:

“There are two races of beings. The masses teeming and happy — common clay, if you like — eating, breeding, working, counting their pennies; people who just live; ordinary people; xxx. And then there are the others — the noble ones, the heroes. The ones you can quite well imagine lying shot, pale and tragic; one minute triumphant with a guard of honor, and the next being marched away between two gendarmes.”

I am sure that the Frenchman Anouilh had not met the Filipino Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. Yet, he could have very well spoken those lines in reference to him.

Indeed, our people watched with awe the incredible feats of Ninoy, the Wunderkind, from the ‘50s at the start of his teenage life all the way to his mid-life. Then some 30 years later, in horror they witnessed TV footage and still pictures of Ninoy “lying shot, pale and tragic” on his arrival at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport.

To be more precise, the tragedy played out on August 21, 1983 at the Manila International Airport.

Under house arrest

On the afternoon of that day, I was in my study in my house in Cagayan de Oro where at the time I was under house arrest on charges of rebellion against the martial law administration.

The phone rang and the voice at the other end said that my friend, Ninoy, had just been shot dead at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport.

Although I had previously warned Ninoy about that tragic possibility should he come home from Boston where we met in 1982, now that it happened, the incident left me completely shattered and shocked beyond belief.

What a waste of talent, I told myself. I knew that Ninoy did not have to come home at the time or at all while martial law ruled the land.

Extra mile

But as the fates would have it, in 1983, three years after his heart surgery, he made public his decision to go home. His family and his friends in the US advised him not to do so. Even the wife of President Marcos said in the media that it was not advisable for Ninoy to come home because as she had put it bluntly he might be killed upon arrival.

The advice of his family and friends, notwithstanding, Ninoy came home. He said he wanted to walk the extra mile for peace in the land and convince President Marcos that it was time to end martial law and restore the country to its democratic moorings.

Freedom shot

But upon landing at the Manila International Airport, burly men, strutting with the harsh mien of unbridled authority went up the plane and brusquely hustled him down the steps of the plane’s ladder. Then, a shot rang out and seconds later, Ninoy was seen by his co-passengers lying down on the tarmac bruised and mortally wounded.

The shot reverberated throughout the country but instead of scaring the people with the awesome display of martial law power, it freed them from their lethargic acceptance of martial rule and roused them to a fever-pitch revulsion of it.

At Ninoy’s wake, thousands of people from all segments of society – the rich, the poor, men, women, and children – paid him their last respects. And 10 days later, more two million people walked 12 hours from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. beside his bier to escort him to his final resting place or watched from the sidewalks more in anger than in sadness at what they thought was a senseless sacrifice of the life of a man who was destined for greatness.

In 1986 or three years after Ninoy’s assassination, the people had enough of martial rule. And it was, now the turn of the executor of martial rule and his family – public and private – to leave the country and go into exile in Hawaii. Their leaving heralded the return of a democratic government to the land.

A hero made or born?

But was Ninoy a hero made or was he hero born?

The question may sound academic but it has a bearing on whether or not Ninoy deserves the accolades that he has been receiving from our people since 1986 when martial law was finally uprooted from the land.

Skeptics probably entertain the view that setting aside August 21 of every year is an example of an undue honor for the man who would be hero.

I beg to disagree. It is not the setting aside of August 21 to commemorate the day of Ninoy’s assassination every year that makes him a hero. To belabour the point, it is rather the sum of his selfless deeds that makes him so and gives meaning to August 21 as a celebratory occasion for the people to remind ourselves of the meaning of his life and especially of his epic death.

But to go back to the larger question of whether or not heroes are made or born, I am not too sure that there is a neat “either or” reply to it. At least, not in the case of Ninoy.

Heroic dimension

The supreme sacrifice of Ninoy presented Philippine society with a heroic dimension that it sorely needed and at the time when we needed it most.

For months before his assassination, foreign wags had started to air scurrilous statements that the Philippines was “a nation of 60 million cowards” who did not have the courage to stand up to one-man rule.

That observation, it must be said, was not true at all. There were people who fought the martial law regime in various ways – some peaceful, others violent. But it was the assassination of Ninoy that gave a nationally recognizable face to the heroic dimension of our society.

Despite its inherently evil connotations, Ninoy’s assassination – as the Fates had decreed it – was, thus, a good thing for the Philippine society as a whole.

For as the philosopher Jean Baudrillard asked, “What is a society without a heroic dimension?”

Ninoy Aquino offered his life to answer the question and in the process proved the skeptics wrong. He also showed that he was right along with those of us who believed in our people: that indeed, the Filipino was worth dying for.

These are excerpts from the privilege speech of Sen. Nene Pimentel delivered on August 13, 2008.

Find more like this: Essay, Opinion

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