FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno
Things took an unexpected and tragic turn Tuesday morning. Angelo Reyes, decorated soldier and controversial public servant, took his own life with a bullet to the heart.
Outwardly tough and battle-scarred, Reyes was among the last persons one would expect to succumb to the temptation of suicide. But the last few weeks have been very severe on the man, the severity magnified by a popular culture entertained by trials by publicity and always ready to believe the worst of the best of men.
The son of schoolteachers, Reyes had only known the life of a public servant. From childhood, he maintained a demonstrated passion to excel. Those who knew him well described him as a perfectionist. He took pride at being impeccably at his best.
The perfectionist, however, worked in an imperfect system. If the accusations leveled against him are true, the perfectionist succumbed to the imperfections of the system. There was simply too much to gain from the imperfections, too little profit to be reaped from warring against the system.
Over the past few weeks, there was too little said about the imperfections in the system; too much said about those who profited from them. It is always titillating to look at personalities who succumbed rather than at design flaws that need to be addressed.
Those who thrive on grandstanding necessarily thrive on orgies of vilification, not on disciplined discourses about improving systems and reinventing procedures. There is much media space to be gained from doing the former, little gained from doing the latter. This is why it has been said our politics makes idiots of us all.
In a piece last week, I warned about the perils of indulging the politicians in the games they play and in the curious styles those are played. The Senate hearings, sensational as the revelations made there might be, have nevertheless fallen into the genre of the burlesque. The senators overindulged themselves in the limelight, played the roles of tactical interrogators, usurped the proper roles of judges, forgot all about the parameters of civility.
There is something about intense media coverage that makes those who bask in the klieg lights lose their usual sense of proportion. At moments, what was technically a public hearing transformed into a kangaroo court where those who preside become judge, jury and executioner all in one. In addition, they are also hecklers, browbeaters and demolition crews.
Angelo Reyes died last Tuesday from a self-inflicted bullet wound. Metaphorically, he was probably dead last week, when he was mocked highhandedly and allowed no avenue to defend his dignity.
The lowest point of that forgettable hearing last week was when Reyes pleaded to speak to defend his reputation before a “surprise” witness. His plea was haughtily dismissed by Sen. Antonio Trillanes, who declared, without even addressing the chair, the accused had no reputation to defend.
If we want to know the meaning of character assassination, simply replay the video clip of this moment. If words could kill, Trillanes would be the defendant.
If we need an icon for the arrogance of power, this moment was it. If we need to personify impertinence, Trillanes would be the man.
Angelo Reyes, who prided himself in his ample record of achievement in the public service was so cruelly humiliated by one whose only claim to fame was a funny mutiny. It was a moment of such unjust cruelty. It visibly broke Reyes’ heart long before a bullet did.
From that moment onwards, Angelo Reyes was a dead man walking. He was a broken, thoroughly despondent man when, on the early morning of Tuesday, he walked to his mother’s grave with intent to take his own life.
Whatever his failings, Reyes deserved his day in a proper court — not in the kangaroo court that public hearings often become when the powerful are overcome by their own narcissism.
Through all the drama that has so far unfolded — all the public weeping by whistleblowers and, thus far, one remarkable death — we might lose sight of the policy issue at bar.
That policy issue deals with the apparent facility with which technical malversation happens in the armed forces. That technical malversation underpins charges that funds were improperly redirected to the enrichment of top officers of the institution.
On one hand, there is obviously a need to tighten fund management and audit procedures in the organization. On the other hand, there is also a need to maintain some degree of budget flexibility given the innate unpredictability characterizing the various missions undertaken by the armed forces.
Over the past few years, a number of reform measures have indeed been undertaken by the AFP. The powerful post of comptroller once headed by the controversial Gen. Carlos Garcia was abolished several years ago, replaced by a system that enables checks in the system. The once vulnerable procurement system for the military is now operating under the strict procedures required under the procurement law.
There are a few areas that will necessarily be problematic. For instance, disbursements for the intelligence operations of the military cannot be subjected to the normal auditing process without compromising security. A more creative solution to minimizing fund leakage will have to be found.
The Senate might not be the most qualified institution to bring all the outstanding procedural and policy issues to final resolution. It is the executive branch and the military command structure that must work out the effective reforms to the satisfaction of a cynical public.
Meanwhile, we can only hope that whatever Angelo Reyes’ faults might have been, they will not completely overshadow the virtues he nurtured through the length of a distinguished career.
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