Thursday, October 25, 2007

Why accident story won’t wash

The evolving official wisdom is that the Oct. 19 Glorietta 2 shopping mall explosion, which left 11 dead and over 100 wounded, was caused by an accumulation of methane gas inside the basement catching fire and causing a 3,500-liter diesel tank to explode. It won’t wash.

Many reasonable men will sooner believe that white is black than accept it. There is simply too much going against it. Both National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales and Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Hermogenes Esperon had called it an “an act of terrorism.” Somebody had tried to recycle the so-called Rajah Solaiman Group (RSG) to claim credit for the crime. Sources at the Philippine National Police (PNP) bomb data center and crime lab had claimed evidence of RDX (Royal Demolition eXplosive) and Composition C-4, which uses RDX as its base, at the site.

Some chemical engineering professors had rejected the accident story, based on their scientific knowledge of the properties and characteristics of diesel fuel and methane gas. Diesel fuel, they pointed out, will burn and cause a fire---yet there was no fire----and methane gas will explode only from extreme heat, at least 110 degrees Celsius or higher, but not at ambient room temperature of 28 -30 degrees Celsius.

Finally, some foreign forensic experts were said to have established the use of C-4. At least one foreign naval personnel, who was reportedly allergic to RDX, was said to have developed blisters in his hands upon entering the scene. A forensics report was said to have been submitted to some foreign embassies. Sources who claim to have seen the report say the experts estimate some five kilograms of C-4 was used, mounted as shaped in columns, a design reportedly consistent with what is used by military Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EODs) units, and similar to that used by the U.S. Special Forces.

Shaped charges, according to ordnance literature, are meant to direct the detonation wave and focus the energy of the explosion. These are normally used to pierce armor or cut metal; if placed on a pillar, they will destroy the pillar and whatever structure it supports. The report suggests the probable involvement of personnel with special military expertise, the sources said.

It is a pity that the men from the FBI, U.S. Navy SEALS and Australian Federal Police, whose presence at the site has been well noted by the press, would probably not be in any position to confirm or deny the story the government will put out, unless so authorized by their respective governments. But it will not be their governments’ business to confirm or contradict Manila’s official story. For this reason, it is unlikely the alleged foreign forensics report will be released by any embassy.

But reason is still our best tool for analyzing the relevant facts and theories. A finding of “terrorist act” compels the government to produce the “terrorists,” and the attempt to bring in the RSG was a complete farce. Failure to produce a credible terrorist would only validate Senator-detainee Antonio Trillanes IV’s charge against Gonzales and Esperon as the brains behind the blast. It would ultimately deepen President Arroyo’s moral crisis which had been temporarily snowed under the Glorietta story. A finding of “industrial accident” on the other hand shifts the burden to the owners of Glorietta.

The sudden arrival of the accident story follows a pattern last seen in the Malacanang bribery scandal. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, several governors signed a full-page ad denying previous stories about the unexplained distribution of P500,000 in cash inside Malacanang on Oct. 11. The very next day, Wednesday, Oct. 24, two officers of the League of Provinces of the Philippines confirmed what they had previously denied but claimed that the money, exposed by Pampanga priest-governor Ed Panlilio and Bulacan Governor Joselito Mendoza who both got P500,000 each, reportedly came from their non-revenue generating association of provincial governors. The “yes, it was a bomb, no, there wasn’t a bomb” story follows the same consistent pattern of inconsistency.

Now, despite all the data that argue against it, an accident is still within the realm of possibility. The only trouble is that even if was, in fact, truly an accident, and nothing but an accident, nobody will believe the story. The government has zero or below zero credibility. Having lied too often, openly, crudely, and routinely, the government cannot expect to be believed whenever it lies, or even when in exceptional instances it decides to tell the truth. Because those in power have openly and flagrantly violated so many laws without being punished or held to account, people have a tendency to presume them guilty even of crimes they have not committed. This is a government that has lost its reason for being, these are officials who have lost every reason to be in office. The solution is not to change the story, but to change those telling the story.

Nothing we have said here will prevent the regime from declaring an industrial accident, if they have already decided to do so. Then they will declare the matter closed. It is to be hoped, though, that before they do so, they will at the very least take the following steps:

1) Require Gonzales and Esperon to explain the basis of their original statement that the explosion was “an act of terrorism.” Since this contradicts the accident story, it would mean their statement was completely irresponsible, unbecoming of the dignity of their high office. If they do nothing, they should be considered “constructively resigned,” to use the famous formulation of Chief Justice Reynato Puno.

2) Fire those who gave official currency to the bogus claim of RSG, if they are in government, and charge them in court, whoever they are.

3) Identify the PNP sources who had reported evidence of RDX and C-4, ask them to produce the evidence, and punish them appropriately if they cannot.

4) Require Senator-detainee Antonio Trillanes IV to either reaffirm or withdraw his allegation against Gonzales and Esperon as the mastermind of the blast. Allow him to appear before a committee of his peers at the Senate, as an exception to the general prohibition on his attending the sessions of the Senate.

Perhaps by doing these, the government may yet hope to convince some people that the explosion was not at all its handiwork. This, however, will not prevent those who believe that if it was Divine Providence, rather than venal men, that had picked Glorietta as the setting of this tragedy, then it must have a clear and urgent message for Mrs. Gloria Arroyo. The Lord has heard the cries of his people, and He wants her to set them free. She, like the Pharaoh long before her, must take heed, or else the land will reek of death from terrible plagues.

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