Taser death a collective failure - the systems we put in place to protect people led to man's demise
Yes, and the systems the police put in place to protect themselves lead to the demise of justice.
March 13, 2008
Les Leyne, Times Colonist
(Column nominated for 2007 National Newspaper Award)
Nov. 17, 2007 - There was something chillingly symbolic about one of the last gestures Robert Dziekanski made before his new life in Canada came to a brutal, abrupt end.
He picked up a computer, held it up with an air of desperation and then threw it to the floor. It was sadly appropriate, if you view it as a symbol of all the security systems that failed him so terribly.
Those are airport, customs and border security systems that make air travel such a dehumanizing, degrading experience. Those are the systems that contributed to his death as surely as that cold-blooded RCMP crew did.
It's hard to express what a monumental tragedy Dziekanski's death represents. It's not just the stupid, unnecessary death of a healthy young man. It's the fact that he came here to build a new life with his mother and in the space of a few hours all his hopes were snuffed out along with his life. Canada failed him callously and completely. There are very few times when I've been ashamed for my country. But watching the Taser video was one of those times.
The idea that a Polish immigrant keen to start a new life in Canada with his mother could get so entrapped in the airport's bureaucratic security maze that it wound up costing him his life is just incomprehensible.
Much of the attention is focused on the RCMP, of course. The force has been begging people to suspend judgment and wait for all the evidence before arriving at conclusions. But nothing will contradict the fact four officers Tasered him within a half-minute of their initial encounter, and possibly again when he was down and out. Nothing is coming up that will show any attempt to placate him, or just calm things down for a moment. There's no evidence that will erase the fact one officer had his knee on the man's neck for a considerable period of time.
But the clumsy brutal arrest is just what finished him off. It was the blind bureaucratic apparatus that treats everyone as cattle at best and as a suspect at worst that set him up for the kill.
The mazes, the processing and the constant watching are all designed to protect us, we're told. But every day, in ways large and small, they cost us our dignity. Vancouver airport, like all the others, is a massive security and surveillance operation that churns countless people through the mill.
"Take off your shoes."
"Undo your belt."
"Empty your pockets."
"Pour out your shampoo."
But the one time the system is called on to intervene and help an individual, rather than impose mindless orders on the multitude, it fails catastrophically. Dziekanski spent more than nine hours ensnared in that processing operation. No one noticed his constant passes in front of the cameras. No one noticed he was getting agitated. If they did, none of the officials apparently cared.
It's haunting to think of all those functionaries standing watch over the crowd, and all those robot cameras watching from every corner. The whole operation is supposedly to keep us safe. But when one lone, frightened passenger gets a little off the grid, he dies a horrible death.
It is chilling to watch Dziekanski's last few moments in that context. His death is far more than a case of suspected police brutality. It's about a collective failure of our entire security apparatus.
And you have to wonder how many thousand individuals passed by the upset man and did nothing. Have we been treated like cattle for so long that we're starting to act like them? Our travel security systems aren't just costing us our dignity. They're costing us our humanity.
In the several minutes of video evidence that show how Dziekanski's life ended, the only saving grace was the sight of one woman reaching out to help him. Unfazed by his erratic behaviour and agitated demeanor, she made an honest effort to reach him. To no avail.
There was a time when Canada was associated with virtues like generosity, friendliness and trust. What a shame that the elaborate security machine that now operates at our gateways apparently views those attitudes as liabilities. Dziekanski's experience in Canada consists of several hours of being ignored, then a brief, brutal encounter with one of our national symbols that was characterized by hostility, aggression and paranoia. And now he's dead.
The other symbolic image from the video that sticks in my mind is the automatic glass door opening and closing repeatedly, as Dziekanski stands on the threshold. He'd been a landed immigrant for several hours by then. He could communicate with no one. The system was ignoring him completely. And the doors to what he thought was the land of opportunity just keep opening and closing mindlessly as he spends his last few moments on Earth driven to the brink of emotional collapse by a system that couldn't care less.