Nov. 23, 2007

What Is Wrong With Us?

The tragic incident at Vancouver International airport, caught on video, highlights so much of how our society has gone wrong.

Readers outside of Canada may not be aware of this situation, so here is a brief recap of the facts. Mr.Dziekanski, a Polish citizen in the process of immigrating to Canada, was killed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Mr. Dziekanski had never flown internationally before, was unused to procedures and spoke no English or French and had been wandering around the secure area prior to clearing customs for ten hours. He had grown increasingly agitated and at the end began to freak out and smash property, at one point tossing a computer monitor on the floor. There is no indication that he threatened violence against other people at any point. The airport security called for the RCMP. Four constables arrived and immediately used the taser on him, without any prior attempt to defuse the situation. As he lay writhing in the agony of the electric shock, the constables jumped on him, and one can be seen clearly forcing his knee into Mr. Dziekanski's throat. His breathing stopped almost immediately, but no attempt at resuscitation appears to have been made.

The reaction from the public has been outrage, but from the officials involved only the usual sad scurry to cover their rear ends. (Also, the company making the Taser is quick to scream "Ain't our fault!") The incident also has an international aspect, with the Polish ambassador publicly criticizing Canadian police procedure. This is also not an isolated incident, seventeen people in Canada have been killed by police taser. The difference this time is that the episode was caught on video, and posted on YouTube for all to see.

Truly our society has gone down a wrong path, a dark path. First, there is the evident lack of compassion towards a being in a state of suffering. The police and the airport officials clearly did not see this a person who desperately needed help. They saw this as an incident that needed to be resolved quickly, whatever the cost to Mr. Dziekanski. I once watched a truckload of cattle being driven into the slaughterhouse, and was shocked by the lack of compassion evidenced by the men wielding their vicious prods. We have fallen so low that we now use those prods on troublesome humans.

Second, we can also see how fearful we have become. Four constables against one distraught individual, and their first response is to use a potentially lethal jolt of electricity to incapacitate the man. I'm sorry but this is a cowardly response, and a sad falling away from the heroic history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police force. We can see this whingeing fearfulness everywhere these days. We have become very risk adverse; just look at how our children are being raised. When I was a lad, back when rocks were soft, we played outside unsupervised until our mothers called us to dinner. Nowadays, you don't see kids playing in the street. They are kept locked indoors against unlikely dangers. Face it, folks, samsara is a dangerous place and no one gets out of here alive.

Third, and this relates to the last point, there is the theatre of the absurd atmosphere of high security especially at airports and border-crossings. There is a plethora of stories about security madness; from baby's sippy cup confiscated as a potential terrorist threat to panics over someone finding some marginal notes written in Farsi in an airline magazine. Just recently, there was an incident at the Windsor-Detroit crossing. A Windsor patient having a heart attack and needing immediate surgery was sent by ambulance to the nearest hospital equipped for the procedure, which happened to be on the US side. Everything was cleared by phone ahead of time, but the border guards still insisted on hauling the ambulance over for "secondary inspection" because it had the unlucky number for their daily quota of harassment. National Security, you know.

Fourth, the inhuman tyranny of bureaucratic procedure stifling all human initiative and even common sense and decency. The ambulance story also illustrates this point. Getting back to the Vancouver airport incident; how could Mr. Dziekanski have been allowed to wander around in a confused state for ten hours? Could not someone have tried to help him? I am guessing that any Canadian Customs staff who saw him felt it was not their responsibility. There were no guidelines for dealing with the situation, so it was ignored until it became "an incident" requiring police intervention.

On the positive side the reaction of the public has so far been healthy. Hopefully some good will come of this; some check will be made on the police's power to use this nasty thing with impunity and some shake up will happen at the airport authority and the customs. My fear is that one result will be a ban on video-taping police actions.