Friday, November 23, 2007

Canada's Cattle Car Moment

The death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport last month has raised a lot of anger in Canada, and it isn't subsiding as quickly as these things usually do. The incident actually happened a month ago, but it didn't hit the news bigtime until last week, when a video of the RCMP tasering Dziekanski became public.

Dziekanski was moving to Canada to join his mother, who lives in B.C. He arrived in Vancouver, then for some still unexplained reason, was unable to leave the secure area of the airport for 10 hours. He mother had come to meet him, but she was not allowed in the secure area, and didn't know what happened when he didn't come out. Asking for information several times, she was only told that if he hadn't come out of the secure area, it meant he wasn't on the flight, so she eventually went home. Meanwhile, Dziekanski, who couldn't speak English, became more and more agitated and no one would help him, until he began picking up furniture in frustration and tossing it around. Finally the RCMP arrived, and after about 10 seconds used tasers on him, causing him to collapse and die.

Now the public is outraged, the Poles are outraged, the RCMP is on the defensive, and everyone is clamouring for someone to do something. People in BC have been pelting RCMP cruisers with eggs and spitting on officers, which is really very rare for Canada, even in BC. All sorts of demands for action are floating around, but most of them seem to have sluiced down the easiest channel, which is to blame the tasers, and talk endlessly about voltage and amps and scientific studies. It doesn't help that there seems to be a rash of taser-related deaths appearing in the news right now, though for all I know, this could be the normal mortality rate for these devices, and it's only the publicity that makes it seem like a crisis.

Anyway, I think that the media are missing one of the key elements driving this wave of anger. We are in some way identifying with this man, and it's not in the way the intelligentsia wishes and assumes we would. It's not that we're concerned about police brutality, because we don't live in a police state, any more than Americans do. We know that, even though some people like to dress up their very safe lives with a little imaginary drama and pretend that they're up against a sinister wall of authoritarian brutality. Canadians aren't afraid that the police will storm their houses in the middle of the night, or drag them off to some torture chamber to beat information out of them.

But what we DO live in is a clumsy, stupid, arrogant bureaucracy. And what we respond to is the fact that Dziekanski was held in a corral for TEN HOURS without anyone helping him, communicating with him, explaining anything to him. It was nobody's job to link him up with his mother, so it was never done. It was nobody's job to explain to him what he should do next, so he was just abandoned there. THAT is what Canadians recognize. We all know that any day, for any reason, that could be us. We could find ourselves snared in some idiotic, incomprehensible bureaucratic limbo. And the rage comes from knowing that if we "make trouble", if we do anything but be submissive and docile, this bureaucracy has no hesitation in physically bludgeoning us into line.

I call this "the cattle car moment", because we know at some level that that is how our government treats us - like cattle, to be herded and forced and made to do things, not men and women who have to be treated honourably.

UPDATE: Wolfville Watch posted a link to this wonderful short by the Czech filmmaker Jiri Trnka - it's a reflection on the totalitarian spirit. Like one of the commenters here said, I've been thinking about Kafka too since this story became public.

12 Comments:

Anonymous ellie m said...

After ten hours in an airport I'd be throwing stuff around too.

10:32 pm  
Blogger langmann said...

That was probably the best summary of the whole situation.

That this guy was trapped in bureaucratic limbo for 10 hours is something no media outlet has yet questioned. Why haven't they asked the obvious questions like how can a guy sit in a security area for 10 hours without anyone asking him some questions about what he's doing?

If the poor man hadn't died, likely the police would have gotten him sorted out and drove him home or at least contacted his mother...

3:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, we need taxpayer funded greeters to meet 40 year old grown men and take them by the hand to meet their mothers! Jesus Lord this country is a bunch of babies!

4:20 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

So instead we have taxpayer funded bureaucrats to run a lockup to meaninglessly imprison a man for 10 hours until he goes insane. Real value for money there.

6:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting that, as the author points out, the anger so far has been directed mainly at the police while in fact it's the rudeness, stupidity and superhuman incompetence of airport staff that's really the culprit here. The police reacted to a situation while knowing nothing of the background that created it - they just saw a man throwing computers around and having a tantrum without knowing what had led up to his final explosion.
Was there not one of the monumentally useless airport staff who thought to find an interpreter?
Focusing all the current rage against police and tasers is understandable, but fails to hold responsible the idiocy that allowed a man with no English skills to stand for ten hours waiting for any of the semi-retarded automatons on the airport staff to do something helpful...

8:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have hit the nail on the head. The fault is the bureaucracy, not the police. I have had a similar sense of being caught up in the cogs of a machine that just doesn't give a damn in the past few weeks trying to get my green card replaced (which the bureaucracy lost in the first place).

There used to be a argument about whether Huxley or Orwell had the truer vision of the totalitarian future. I am beginning to think that perhaps Kafka actually had the best understanding of the threat posed to Western freedom.

10:23 am  
Blogger Kasia said...

Yes, we need taxpayer funded greeters to meet 40 year old grown men and take them by the hand to meet their mothers!

I think this misses the point. Unless I'm much mistaken, the point wasn't that oh gee, we should have greeters to address this issue. I think the point is more that the people who were THERE, already on staff and working during that ten-hour span, should have made at least a small effort to ascertain whether he had a problem and they could be of help.

I've worked in bureaucracies, though admittedly not as large as the Canadian government. The "it's not MY job!" mentality is pretty overwhelming, especially when you get out of the areas that are by nature more accountable.

For example, I worked for a large university. I noticed that the people who worked in Development and Alumni Affairs seemed to be more efficient and responsive than, say, the people in Facilities. For one thing, most of the employees in D&AA were non-union, and thus could be fired for any non-discriminatory reason. For another thing, D&AA was (obviously) very dependent on the goodwill of the people we served, primarily donors, prospective donors, and alumni. Even when we weren't the proper department for you to talk to, you could pretty well count on us either finding out the answer directly for you, or giving you the exact details of what department to contact, including a contact name whenever possible.

Facilities, on the other hand, had a captive clientele and was a bureaucratic nightmare. So was Accounts Payable, which again had a captive clientele. And Financial Aid was legendary even compared to their counterparts at other local universities.

So ultimately, the point is that the people on hand need to be watching their surroundings BEFORE people start throwing furniture.

4:33 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Kasia, the ironic thing is that if that had been a stray DOG wandering about the airport, it wouldn't have taken 10 hours for someone to rescue it. Nor would anyone have waited until the dog was so starved and frantic it was messing on the floor and barking savagely before someone acted. You can bet the people in those offices would have been heading off to Subway to get roast beef sandwiches to feed the dog, and they'd have been PROUD to recount the story of their humanitarianism later on, rather than muttering "It's not my job" and leaving the animal in distress. But for a human being, they were capable of this kind of callousness.

4:52 pm  
Blogger Kasia said...

Unfortunately, I think you're right. And I'd be right there with the first person trying to coax the hypothetical dog over. I'd like to think I would've thought to ask the man if I could help, but who knows?

I think some portion of it can be chalked up to assuming that a human being, not being a dog, would be capable of sorting things out without having one's hands held. And there's some basis for that assumption. However, it doesn't take into account things like the fact that the man apparently spoke no English. You can criticize him for emigrating to Canada without speaking one of the official languages, I suppose, but realistically a lot of people learn the language *after* they arrive, not before. And even if I spoke, say, basic English, I could readily see a conversation with airport or Customs personnel quickly moving beyond my grasp of the language.

5:37 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Yes, there are assumptions about the abilities of human beings we make that don't apply to animals. But we know that in this case, there was more than enough time for people to realize that Dziekanski was in trouble. I don't know just where the dividing line is - one hour, 3 hours, I'm not sure. But I KNOW that ten hours was well past that point, and there's something wrong with a system and the people in it that could treat a man so inhumanely.

6:42 pm  
Anonymous Jenda said...

I vividly recall several such moments at the old INS (I left Canada and my wife left a counry that borders Poland), where, when they no longer wanted to take poeple who had been waiting in line, namely us, they sent us purposely into the printing office to wait. Je deteste civil service protections sometimes. Political appointees simply do not behave this way.

8:31 pm  
Blogger Kasia said...

There's definitely something wrong, that's for sure. I would venture a guess that the dividing line (one hour, three hours, five...) depends a lot on case-specific circumstances. But I certainly hope the inquiry delves a lot more deeply into what went on from the time he landed until the RCMP appeared on the scene, not just into whether the taser was humanely used.

I mentioned this post and my reaction to it to my Canadian fiancé, and he's largely in agreement with both of us. He mentioned that in the video of the tasering you can hear someone shouting "He only speaks Russian!", so it would seem that someone had some clue of what was going on. I hope, for the sake of both Dziekanski's memory and his mother, they find out who knew what, and when they knew it.

8:36 pm  

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