Public Deaths

Death is one of the most universal of taboos. Not the rituals of grief, burial and mourning which are many, varied and almost always public in character. I mean the actual act of dying. This most mysterious of earthly transitions is done in private, even for the most well-known of persons, with a few family and close friends in attendance and maybe a man or woman of God around to ease the way.

Public deaths, on the other hand, serve a social purpose. For instance, public executions are meant to be cathartic events in which society extracts its pound of flesh, as it were. It supposedly serves as a deterrent to criminal or aberrant behavior and reflects the manner by which justice is served within a community. It’s also morbidly entertaining and can even be interactive, such as in the practice of stoning or the spectators’ participation in the gory events in the Roman Colosseum.

Other public deaths, such as the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, serve as a catalyst for social upheaval and change.

Suicide is a more complicated phenomenon in which no easy generalizations can be made. It can be done privately or in plain of view others, but even the most secretive act of taking one’s life assumes a public aspect upon the discovery of the body. The act itself is shocking under any circumstance, being so contrary to what we normally know and expect of human behavior. Thus, the ripple effects of a suicide extend beyond the immediate family or social circle of the victim to the society at large. I knowingly use the word “victim” as I believe those who kill themselves are casualties of one or another of life’s events which makes continued living unbearable. However, some suicides are more publicly significant that others.

The suicide of Mohamed Boazizi, a young Tunisian who immolated himself in protest over the oppressive and autocratic rule of strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and led to his ouster, is a public death. It started a conflagration which has spread to Egypt and threatens to engulf the entire region. In 60 years, there has never been one case of a successful, popular revolt toppling an Arab regime; now, within a span of 2 months, two governments in the Middle East have fallen.

The suicide of Anglo Reyes is a public death, as he led a public life which, for good or ill, “shaped and reflected the events of his time“. As explained by Prof. Randy David:

Although he was a professional military man, Angelo T. Reyes became a key player in the nation’s political stage. Whether he welcomed it or not, he unexpectedly found himself, as head of the Armed Forces, thrust into the role of political arbiter during the crisis of January 2001. At that crucial moment, the military became, once again, the deciding factor in an unstable political equation. Reyes made the decision to lead his soldiers in withdrawing support from President Joseph Estrada, paving the way for the accession to the presidency of Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Having cast his lot with GMA, Mr. Reyes prospered for a long while, even after he retired from military service. He assumed numerous cabinet posts, in fact too many, according to his detractors. This may have been his undoing as he should have sought elective position earlier, and retained some degree of political power and influence, before he was permanently tarred by the corrupt brush of the shamelessly venal Arroyo administration.

Stripped of political influence, he knew that he was vulnerable. He had a thorough understanding of how the political system works–its hypocrisy, its rottenness, and its rituals of degradation. But he could not summon enough will to bow to its sometimes brutal ways once he found himself at the receiving end of power.

And so he ended his life. And this is not always the easy way out, as many would like to believe. It takes a certain amount to steel in one’s personality to pull the trigger.

On a certain level, his motivation was certainly self-serving. He was, by his own estimation, extremely self-assured, even arrogant in the eyes of others. He wanted to regain some control over events which now threatened to destroy him, his family and what he saw as his historical legacy, most specially as a professional soldier. His suicide was premeditated and not an impulsive act, which are how most suicides are seen by those who study the phenomenon. Angelo Reyes knew what he was doing. He said so himself. In his “last” interview he stated pointedly:

Living life without honor is a tragedy bigger than death itself.

He could have stonewalled and gone the legal route in deflecting the accusations against him. Others have done so and lived to tell the tale (as well as enjoy their ill-gotten wealth). But this was not the soldier’s way. As a warrior, honor impelled him to fall on his sword. In doing so, he was successful to some extent in saving his good name and dignity. This is an example which others similarly situated should consider following, for their own sake and, more importantly, for the good of the country.

The tragedy of Angelo Reyes is that, despite his avowed intention to “come clean”, in the end he did not. He lacked the courage to name names and help cleanse the institutions which he served so loyally and bravely. And he tried to minimize his role by saying, truthfully enough, that: “I did not invent corruption. I walked into it“. But he lacked the will to walk out of it, until the only way he could leave was horizontally and feet first.

Be that as it may, the man is dead, and we condole with his family and friends as “Taps” is played today for a fallen warrior.

1 thought on “Public Deaths”

  1. his misplaced pride reeked of a gangrened sense of honor. In the movie Scarface, its a rule to not underestimate the other guys greed. guess he felt so secure high up his make believe throne and forgot about keeping his knives sharp. there is never any honor among thieves.

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