Robert is dead

October 14, 2010

On this day, in 2007, Robert Dziekanski was killed by a Tazer in the hands of the RCMP (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).


There’s plenty to say about the killing of Robert Dzkenski.  A great deal of it has already been said, and – we can hope – not forgotten. The report of the offical inquiry, written by Commisoner Thomas Braidwood , goes on for 460 pages.

Reading that report, and watching the video (shot by a bystander) of the end of Robert’s life, I did notice one troubling detail which I’ve found troubling… among a mass of troubling parts.

When Robert lost his temper, no one around him could speak or understand his language.  No one even knew what language he could understand.

The following traces the evolution of this language barrier from Robert’s arrival until he is killed.

The very first layer of officaldom, a private contractor working to direct people towards customs, discovered that Robert did not speak english. (She conveyed her simple message with hand signals).

The very first Customs officer – just by glacing at Robert’s passport – knew that Robert was Polish. By offering Robert a choice of the basic declaration cards, translated into many languages, he confirmed that he spoke Polish.

About an hour after the flight arrived, a stewardess noticed Robert’s unclaimed bags. By scanning the luggage tags, she figured out that he came from Poland. She then asked a Customs officer if they knew where Robert was. They didn’t.  (The Braidwood Report’s account of the stewardess’ trestimony does not include whether or not she mentioned that the missing passenger was Polish… it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that she would have.

Sometime after 1900h, Customs was contacted by a person (Mr.Hutchinson) waiting to meet Robert. They were told that he spoke Polish.  This officer told another officer that a family was worried about a man who should have arrived from Poland… this conversation was overheard by their supervisor.

At 2230h, Robert found his way to the Secondary Customs station. These officers testified that it was obvious there was a language barrier, but that they did not think that they needed a translator. Robert was sent on to the Secondary Immigration station, where the language issue repeated itself. These officers managed to figure out that Robert spoke Polish (Braidwood does include an explanation of why they did not simply look at his passport), they looked in a database for appropriate translators, and found none. (They testified that – astonishingly – they had not been aware that they had access to a 24/7 hotline to translation services for 170 different languages). By luck one other officer on duty could speak a very little Polish. With his help, Immigration managed to accomplish their task.

During his time in secondary Immigation, a (non-Polish) translator watched officers trying to communicate with Robert. She intervened to suggest that they call translator and offered that she knew one who spoke Polish.

Also during this time, the Customs officer who had spoken with Mr.Hutchinson noticed Robert and put two and two together. She told Immigration that the people waiting to meet Robert had been worried, and may have given up and gone home.

A while later (shortly before 0100), the officer who had been able to speak a bit of Polish, noticed that Robert didn’t seem to understand that he was cleared to leave. He guided him to the theshold and wished him a good night. Within steps, Robert was again in a world where no one could speak his language and, worse, the identify of that language was suddenly lost.

At just after 0100, a security guard encountered an agiated Robert in the International Arrivals Lounge. The language barrier was rediscovered.

About two minutes later, a bystander complained about Robert to security, mentioning that Robert did not speak any English and guessing that he might speak Russian.

This guess was incorrect – Robert was speaking Polish. (This detail is less relevant than it might seem… Robert, educated in Soviet influenced Poland of the 1970s, would have almost certainly been taught to speak and understand Russian.

No matter the exact language, it takes until 0135hr for Airport security to make any attempt to find someone who could speak either language. Earlier, they had rejected an offer from a staff member who offered to help as he could speak Russian.  Nobody bothered to use the wall-mounted help phones which would have patched them through to the 24/7 translation service (170 languages).

When the police arrived (0127h) several bystanders and a security guard told them that Robert spoke Russian. The officers, perhaps because they were rushing (for which they were later repremanded), made no attempt to find a Russian-speaker who could assist.

By 0135h, when security finally asked that somebody ask the maintence staff if anyone on duty happen to speak Russian, Robert was already dead.

Video footage (shot by a bystander) shows Robert making several attempts to communicate and cooperate with the police. When he understood a demand to see his passport, he obediently tried to get it from his luggage. (To what must have been confusion and frustration, a second officer immediately demanded that he stop reaching for his passport). Robert trys to comply with an officer’s demand to see a passport, is suddenly told to stop, and then – confused – raising his hands in a guesture of surrender). He spoke in Polish: “leave me alone… have you gone mad?”.

As they will conceed, the police’s role was to minimize the risk of anyone being injured by containing Robert, and then calming him down.  (Yes, as a very last resort, it would have been appropriate to physically restrain Robert).  To calm someone requires communicating. In this case a translator was required.  It would not have been sensible to wait for one to arrive… but (a) translation services were available on those wall-mounted phones, (b) containing Robert’s minor rampage took was quickly and easily accomplished just by their pressence and a few hand-guestures… at this point the police were in a position to wait for a translator to fly in from Mars.

There is no excuse for police officers, stationed for regular duty at an international airport to be unaware of, and accustomed to accessing, resources available to help them communicate with travellers who can not speak english.

That incompetance is a key to how Robert ended up dead.

Part of what feuled Robert’s frustration, and then anger, was surely the experience of being severed – by the legacy of Babel – from everyone around him.

Being unable to either speak to or understand anyone around you is to be severed from all others… dangling in an unnatrual, individual state.  This can be part of the buzz of travelling, it can also spiral very quickly into a nightmare.

Most people have had their heart pound through a dream of being unable to speak to communicate.

Facing one stranger, with no common language, is awkward. Being lost in such a crowd is frightening.  Being confronted by police officers – quite apparently in an alarming rush, would have been absolutely terrifying… and a horrible way to die.


Post-Inquiry updates:
Braidwood notes that Vancouver International Airport has implemented some improvments.

All Security Guards are given a “Customer Care Cards” which include directions to make use of the interpretor-hot-line.

All staff are given Blackberries to allow them to access the interpretor-hot-line.

Cards, to be given to any passenger in distress, have been designed to so that they may – by pointing to their language – help staff begin assisting them.

Additional courtesy phones have been hung, to provide easier access to the interpretor hot-line.

The offending officers were not fired. The RCMP reassigned them to posts away from the airport.

After two and a half years, the head of the RCMP offered Robert’s mother an apology.

The RCMP officers responsible for Robert’s death were never charged.


Mr. Dressup is dead

September 18, 2010

Mr.Dressup was an icon of Canadian children’s-culture. It’s hard to imagine that any Canadian kid – born between roughly 1965 to 2000 – would not recognize his picture. Some large majority would recognize the theme music. Another majority would have watched the show dozens and dozens of times.

Ernie Coombs entered the television as a puppeteer in Mr.Roger’s Neighbourhood.  A few years later, the CBC gave him his own show… the first episode of “Mr.Dressup” was aired February 13th, 1967.

Until 1990, Finnegan and Casey lived in Mr.Dressup’s backyard. Finnegan (a dog) was silent. Casey was, officially, neither a boy nor a girl. I loved Finnegan. To be honest, Casey gave me the creeps.  (It never occurred to me until this moment how odd it is that Mr.Dressup had a child living in a backyard tree-house).

Just shy of three decades after it began, Mr.Dressup stopped taping. Since no narrative linked one episode to the next, the CBC let the 10:30am broadcasts drift into re-runs without any mention of retirement.
Somebody was afraid that the idea of retirement might upset the children. This seemed cute, until I gave it some thought.

The illusion continued…
Five years later, on September 10th 2001, Ernie Coombs suffered a major stroke. He died a week later, on September 18th.
After a few days of silence, the show resumed its re-run drift.

Plenty of people said: a big part of a generation’s childhood died, right along with Ernie Coombs.

I imagined that something saved Mr.Dressup from witnessing the disturbing imagery of 9.11.  And I wondered if that same something took Ernie Coombs – that prince of naivety – away from a culture so shaken.

Another five years later, on September 3rd 2006, even the re-runs were extinguished.
A DVD set is forthcoming.

Photographs of people falling from the North and South towers of the World Trade Center (9.11.2001) were published in countless newspapers on the morning following the attack. It was a part of the story in television and radio coverage… but only in the first stage of the marathon. By September 13th, “the jumpers” had virtually vanished.
This was not some back-room conspiracy. It was spasm of self-censorship, repeated and mimicked across an entire country.  Angry audiences objected to the terrible images. Editors responded by averting our gaze.

This one bit of the story almost, but not completely, vanished.Esquire Magazine (Sept 2003) published “The Falling Man” by Tom Junod. This article, centered around one photograph of a single falling man, stirred the set-aside pot. What does it say about us we allowed our horror, and a taboo, erase this part of the story?

Why does their disappearance upset me?
Why are their part of the story so important?

Allow me to do this by way of a story… about where their tale intersects my own…

On that day, I happen to be listening to National Public Radio. (I was driving down Long Island, towards Manhattan, but that’s a story for elsewhere). A news bulletin announced that there had been reports of an explosion at the World Trade Center. Very shortly afterwards, the WNYC suddenly fell to static.
WYNC, it wasn’t hard to realize, was broadcasting from an antenna on top of one of the World Trade Center towers. (It turns out that this was on roof of the North Tower, the first to be hit. The heat from the resulting fire must have fairly quickly reached the roof and destroyed the antenna).
I pulled off the highway — about 30 miles from New York City — and started flipping through the dial.
While others gathered around television sets to watch the unfolding spectacle, I was confined to radio.
(It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, almost nine years afterwards, that I saw the television footage that millions and millions of people saw that day… and repeated over and over again).
Confined to radio, unable to see the obscene theater of the second plane hitting the South Tower, it took quite a while for the severity of the situation to sink in. I certainly wasn’t ignoring what was going on… I was flipping through the radio dial, excited to be so close to what was obviously a major event. This may seem a little less troubling if you understand that I had spent much of my university time studying the peace/conflict side of  “International Relations” (terrorism and American foreign policy were major topics).
But World Trade Center attack was — with terrible brilliance — designed to be seen. The second plane struck 17 minutes after the first… perfectly timed: several cameras were broadcasting live images of the fire up in the North Tower, accidentally capturing the second plane striking the South Tower.
No radio-bound words could come close to matching the power of that bit of footage.

What did jolt me out of my mind out of its whirling mode, treating the whole thing as an exciting moment for analysis?
The jumpers.
I remember it as a child’s voice asking “are those birds?”. In fact, I can still hear that child… and that innocent, but horrible question.
(From reading the other day, I found references to a mother trying to comfort her child by telling her that “those are only birds”. Whichever).
It was the thought of people falling hundreds of feet to the concrete which jarred me into a more compassionate mode. The next day, the news-photographs pushed me further.

The images of the doomed fell out of circulation almost as quickly as those people fell to the ground. Within 48 hours, they were gone.
I hate that we made the jumpers vanish.
Something which jolted me into compassion… was ushered out of sight, into a the confines of a taboo.

The images froze the them in mid air. The doomed were suspended in terrible flight.
Did we think that by making the images vanish, we’d stop what gravity says next? Did we leave them suspended in the air?

Ahmed Shah Massoud

September 9, 2010

In hindsight, its quite clear that Ahmed Shah Massoud was assasinated in preparation for a much larger act of violence.
Two days before 9.11.2001, two men — claiming to be journalists — had joined Massoud in northern Afghanistan. They detonated the explosives hidden within their camera… killing themselves and a handful of others, including Massoud.

Ahmed Shad Massoud a popular and powerful leader within the Northern Alliance. Osama Bin Laden, knowing what was about to happen in New York and Washington, almost certainly expected that the US would over-react and attack Afghanistan. The Taliban — who provided Bin Laden with sanctuary — would fall. The Northern Alliance were certainly no angels, but Bin Laden did not want them to fill the power vacuum he was to provoke the US into creating. This was especially true if the N.A. came under the heroic, charismatic leadership of Massoud.
Bin Laden was about to sacrifice the Taliban… in order to provoke the US into a violent rage. This would  — he seems to have hoped — whip up anger in the “Muslim World”.  Further, anarchy in Afghanistan would snare the US military where it could be poked. With Jihad in Afghanistan — Bin Laden told himself and those who would listen –they had  caused the collapse of one superpower (Soviet Union)… the United States would be next.
Bin Laden apparently believed that it was possible that Ahmed Shah Massoud might be able to steer Afghanistan away from anarchy… or, he might have provided the US with a puppet — and a way out of Bin Laden’s snare.


September 6, 2010

Of the two weeks I once spent in the local hospital’s psych ward, I think of one moment more than any other. Far more than any other.
An elderly man was brought into my (shared) room. He was very annoyed, and insisted that he be allowed to go home.
“But Archie, you tried to suffocate yourself by putting a plastic bag over your head”.
He couldn’t see what was so crazy about that.

You were elderly then…
I’m sure your dead by now.
I suppose that one way or
the other, you won in the end.

Mother Teresa is dead

September 5, 2010

I confess that I do not know that many details about Mother Teresa.

I can picture her image. I have read a typical handful of news articles about her, and read bits of what she said (an address to the US National Prayer Breakfast, and her remarks at accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, for example). I find it so exhausting to stomach.

I have read only a few paragraphs of Christopher Hitchen’s attack on her reputation (“Missionary Position”, ludicrously dense in its prose).

She’s said to have dedicated her life to the poor – I’m not interesting in debating this.

She spoke against abortion. I find her remarks on this subject to be mistaken (deluded) and cruel.

She spoke against contraception. And here I find her contribution to the world to be utterly repugnant. Let that be the moment’s focus:

It’s tempting to dismiss anything a nun – pledged to chastity – has to say about matters of sexual heath and reproduction. (But, to be honest, I’m not sure that a complete lack of personal experience will, a priori, disqualify the opinions of a thinker).

Her hatred for contraception was expressed as a fear that it might undermine the proper love within a marriage, and between that couple and god. She saw contraception of any type (using the ability to choose when (or if) to have children) as undermining the purpose of sexuality: honouring god by obeying his biblical command to multiply.

The idea that procreation is sex’s only purpose is nonsense.  It is supported by nothing other than an invisible god and the faithful who claim to be able to explain his will to the rest of us.

But beyond such questions of faith, and the “purpose” of things like sexuality and marriage…

What kind of beast, in the age of HIV/AIDS, tells their followers that the use of condoms is immoral?

Even within her precious (rigid) idea of a family based on “traditional” marriage, the danger of disease still lurks. No one can be certain that their spouse has been monogamous, and therefore can never know if they are putting themselves at risk.

Mother Teresa is dead… silenced in her adopted home of Calcutta, 13 years ago today — September 5th.

You are missed, but not by me.