March 6, 2009
The public hearing is a ritual of democracy.
I don't mean courtroom trials necessarily but rather Senate hearings, Mulroney inquiries, American confirmations and royal commissions.
We watch them riveted. (There's a "cancer" on the presidency, you say? A pubic hair on whose Coke can?) We are aghast at the testimony. (You took cash from that affable German man? In a Zurich hotel room?)
And then we render our own judgment, stunned when people like Nixon get pardoned and Clarence Thomas is confirmed as a Supreme Court judge.
The Braidwood inquiry into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, after RCMP repeatedly jolted him with a Taser stun gun at Vancouver International Airport, is one of the most morally compelling I have ever seen. It may not have grand international implications, but as a rendering of what men are capable of doing to each other, it has few rivals.
I have watched it streamed live on CBCNews.ca for days now and I'm still learning things. The kind of things Stephen King can get a whole novel out of.
The damning replay
Anyone can select a "creepiest moment" from the death of Dziekanski after he met four RCMP officers for the first and last time.
Perhaps it is when he first fell to the floor in agony after being zapped by a Taser. Even when I leave the room, wincing, I can still hear his screams.
Or is it the weird bloodless testimony of blank-faced Const. Kwesi Millington who repeatedly asserts the perfection of his conduct?
The power behind this inquiry, of course, is the bystander's video, which renders the events present, implacable and inarguable.
The killing spools out, backs up, replays, each time acting as an electronic refutation of witness statements that even those same RCMP witnesses, like Millington who deployed his Taser five times, now agree are flat-out wrong.
So the real hero is a young man named Paul Pritchard, who filmed the killing because he's young, curious and a thoroughly decent sort.
Here is what Pritchard achieved when he deployed his videocam on Oct. 14, 2007, in the early morning hours as an exhausted, foreign-sounding man fretted and wandered about an airport holding area.
First, you see Dziekanski. Who will be dead within minutes.
But you can also visualize a line of ghosts behind him. They are the people who have encountered police forces, including the RCMP, without benefit of a video camera recording their last conscious seconds on this Earth.
This is why police in both Canada and the U.S. now videotape interrogations. The camera doesn't lie.
Given the existence of this video, any reasonable person with even a small degree of skepticism — and I must admit that it is my job to be permanently skeptical — might wonder why the RCMP was so cool and confident in the period leading up to this inquiry, so certain that their treatment of Dziekanski would be publicly accepted.
Is this confidence just born of habit?
West of Ontario, the RCMP pretty much runs things. And they can often run them badly, without the oversight a citizen should expect. But this time, their smugness, indeed indifference, has been laid bare online.
Much to explain
The RCMP has had a number of strange cases to explain. But there are many instances where the RCMP appears to escape not just censure but the radical changes needed in a police force that has been mismanaged for years.
Appointing a civilian commissioner does not appear to have helped. This one made sympathetic phone calls to the officers now testifying.
A smart commissioner would have fired or at least suspended these officers immediately. But that's like saying a canny Richard Nixon would have erased those tapes, or a wiser Dick Cheney would have left Valerie Plame alone. That's not how powerful people think.
The centre of attention
I can't improve on the video stream. (The inquiry is to resume March 23.) I am left with impressions.
For me, the sound that will always be the theme of this inquiry is the flowing of water. It is constantly being poured from those carafes you find in courts and government offices.
Kwesi Millington is one thirsty witness. He is always drinking water.
"I don't remember." Millington says that often. Not 71 times, like former U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzalez during the torture-memo hearing; Gonzalez sometimes couldn't even recall remembering.
Millington doesn't go that far, but he is one incurious Mountie. When the Dziekanski video first came out, concerned Canadians watched it in horror; Millington claims he never bothered to look at it. He didn't like being the centre of attention, he said.
Very often, objects become the focus of these public hearings. This time, it's a stapler.
Millington, accompanied by three other big men in Kevlar vests and armed with batons, pepper spray, loaded guns and extra bullets, testified that he felt "threatened" by Dziekanski holding a stapler.
We watched agog as officials unwrapped the "weapon" in question from its sealed package inside a bag.
It was just your standard little black office Swingline. What men these Mounties be.
Often in hearings such as these, someone emerges as a leader. Sometimes it can be a politician who erupts in indignation at key witnesses and their lawyers. Remember U.S. congressman Henry Waxman asking GM, Ford and Chrysler CEOs if they drove to the hearings or flew in on private jets?
Or it can be a witness whose personality — like John Dean's preternatural calm at the Watergate hearings — carries the day.
Sometimes there are noticeable women, such as the hygienic Maureen Dean of Watergate or the tragic Fawn Hall of Iran-Contra.
But this is Canada; we don't do that here. The atmosphere at this inquiry is male, middle management; the fashion, a sensible Moores the Suit People. The witnesses are automatons, the lawyers garble their questions, the commissioner is excessively correct. The room is bland, not grand.
This is inquiry as banal office panorama, a dull little scene, full of pauses. All that punctuates it is a man screaming, and the sound of water being poured from a jug.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Friday, March 06, 2009
March 6, 2009