Where to lay the blame in the Manila hostage debacle? Everywhere.

Philippine National Police taking photos in front of the bus where eight died on Monday. These photos have caused an uproar in Hong Kong and many Chinese communities.

On Tuesday, a little after 12:30 AM in the Philippines, recently-elected Philippine President Benigno Aquino III stepped up to the podium in Manila to comment on the crisis that had begun nearly seventeen hours earlier. He would only give the assembled media the bare bones of the story. That morning, he said, a disgraced Philippine policeman had hijacked a bus full of tourists from Hong Kong. The policeman had been fired in 2008. His only demand was that he get his job back.  Among the two dozen tourists on board were five Canadian citizens.

What actually occurred was a failure of the worst degree by everyone involved.  

After former Senior Police Investigator Rolando Mendoza stormed the bus brandishing a rifle, Philippine police closed off the street and began to negotiate with the raving ex-cop.  The ex-cop apparently believed that the only way for him to clear his criminal record was to hold a bus of tourists hostage with a semiautomatic weapon.

The police wisely used the hijacker’s brother, Gregorio Mendoza, who was also a member of the Philippine police force, to negotiate with his rogue brother through the driver’s side window. At first, the police seemed to be making progress. The hijacker was coaxed into releasing a diabetic, an elderly gentleman, and children.

This was the only success that tragic Monday in Manila.

The negotiations dragged on for eleven hours and the media swarmed the scene, free from police interference, while a Philippine SWAT team stumbled through their preparations to surround the bus. Astonishingly, the entire event--all twelve hours-- was broadcast live on two of the Philippines’ largest news networks. The networks even had the audacity to treat the scene like a stage set by illuminating the side of the bus where the SWAT team waited to move in.

No one thought of whether or not the hijacker had access to a television or radio inside the bus. As it turns out, while the police believed they were hidden and their manoeuvres were secret, the hijacker watched their every move on live television, lit up beautifully by the set lamps provided by the media throng that had assembled.

But perhaps the most consequential mistake of the evening was by the media and police force combining for simultaneous maladroitness. At the eleventh hour, the hijacker’s brother, the chief negotiator, was aggressively handcuffed and forced into a squad car under suspicion that he was aiding his brother in the hostage-taking. At the moment this scene came onto television, the hijacker fired the first gunshots, presumably at the fifteen tourists still in the bus.

Then the commandos moved in, slinging sledgehammers into the windows of the bus and, eventually, killing the hijacker. When all the dust had settled, eight were dead and one was in critical condition, where he remains in a Hong Kong hospital.

What went wrong?

Negotiators were overmatched and unprepared. The hijacker was not asking for a king’s ransom, only a promise of his job back. It baffles me to believe that negotiators were not prepared to lie to him, cuff him, and arrest him, bringing the crisis to a speedy end. No professional, this hijacker showed his face and exposed himself to the police numerous times. After eleven hours of failed negotiation, someone, somewhere should have realized that they must free the citizens onboard at any cost, even that of the gunman’s life.

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