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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Would civility have saved Polish man?

February 18, 2009
By LYN COCKBURN, Edmonton Sun

The ongoing inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski in the Vancouver airport in October 2007 is above all, a lesson in "what ifs."

What if, for example, the Polish immigrant had not wandered, ignored, in the airport for over 10 hours? Perhaps he would now be at home in Kamloops, B.C. with his mother, learning English, working at a new job, enjoying his new country.

What if the four RCMP officers called to deal with a confused, agitated Dziekanski had simply overpowered him, instead of zapping him five times with a Taser? Possibly, Dziekanski would not have fallen, writhing, to the floor, where he died in seconds.

What if Paul Pritchard, a bystander, had not videoed the incident? Perhaps this tragedy would not have hit front pages worldwide. Then, perhaps, we might have believed original reports Dziekanski was only zapped once. We might have believed this bewildered man was a dangerous threat to everyone in the airport and to four strapping police officers.

Perhaps we might not have witnessed a momentary look of relief when Dziekanski saw four officers approach, which turned to horror as he was zapped. And a translator might not have told us later that Dziekanski shouted "Are you crazy?" in Polish.

What if no witnesses spoke up? One told the inquiry that after Dziekanski was zapped, an officer pinned him to the floor with a knee in his back. The inquiry also heard that when paramedics arrived, police initially refused to take the handcuffs off, saying the Polish immigrant, perhaps already dead, was still a danger.

The list of what ifs, as underlined by videotapes, cellphone photos and witnesses at this inquiry, goes on and on. Some of them seem small. What if Zofia Cisowski, Dziekanski's mother, a Kamloops janitor, had not been brushed aside when she inquired about her son's whereabouts in the airport? What if she had not been told he simply was not on the flight, that he had never arrived in Vancouver? Then she would not have headed back to Kamloops, convinced her son had somehow missed the plane. And then she would not have received a call telling her to come back to Vancouver, that he had arrived, that he was now dead.

Some of the what ifs are ludicrous beyond credibility. What if Dziekanski had not picked up a stapler? And, according to lawyers at the inquiry, had not made threatening motions with it? And yes, the stapler was quite full and Dziekanski supposedly "shot" staples in the direction of police officers. This, after he lifted up a small table in a supposedly threatening manner.

And some of the what ifs are beyond sad, straying into the area of the surreal. What if airport authorities had listened to Karol Vrba, a maintenance worker who speaks five languages, including some Polish? The inquiry heard that minutes before the tragedy, he offered to go to Dziekanski in the terminal and translate. He was told to forget it and get on with his job.

The answer to every one of these "what ifs" is that if RCMP or airport staff had used an ounce of common sense, Robert Dziekanski would be alive today.

And the argument that it is better to zap someone with a stun gun than it is to shoot him with a gun, is at best, specious. There are 25 people in Canada who would disagree, if they were still alive. Those 25 who have died after being zapped, among them Robert Dziekanski, would surely ask for a moratorium,or better yet a ban, on these weapons - if only they could.

The inquiry continues. Zofia Cisowski, Dziekanski's mother, still mourns. And Tasers are still in use across Canada.

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