At 3:15pm on October 13, 2007, Robert Dziekanski arrived at Vancouver International Airport from Poland, to join his mother in Canada. His mother had instructed him to wait for her around the baggage carousels, but because it was an international flight, YVR Security could not allow her access. After completing initial customs clearance at 4:00 pm, Mr. Dziekanski was left on his own.
He spoke no English. He had no idea where his mother was. He didn’t know anyone else in Canada. And the airport staff completely ignored him. Later, they were unable to tell public inquiries where Mr. Dziekanski had been between 4:00 and 10:15pm.
At 10:15, he attempted to leave the Customs hall, but was directed back to Immigration. His visa was processed at about 12:15am, nine hours after the arrival of his flight. After another half hour in a waiting area, he was directed to the international arrivals reception area. However, the airport staff had already told Mr. Dziekanski’s mother, a few hours earlier, that he had never arrived. She had gone home.
Robert Dziekanski was left alone in a strange country, with no support from anyone, unable to talk with anyone or figure out what was going on. He was likely hungry, exhausted and terrified. At that point, witnesses say, he started “freaking out.”
While Paul Pritchard recorded his famous video, Mr. Dziekanski paced angrily back and forth. He threw a TV tray, and then a computer, across the room. Security officers nearby argued amongst themselves about what to do with him, considering that another 300 people were due through shortly.
Their words on the video show that they had no idea where he was from or what language he spoke. At one point, a lady asked him if he spoke Russian. (“Russian? Rossia?”) He shook his head. Later, a security guard is heard saying that Mr. Dziekanski “only speaks Russian” and they should bring in a Russian interpreter “to calm him down.” When the now-famous four RCMP officers arrived, the guard repeated that “he only speaks Russian.”
Thirty seconds later, when Mr. Dziekanski raised a stapler over his head, the Mounties tasered Mr. Dziekanski at least four times, stopping his heart. Although airport paramedics were nearby, they called the municipal paramedics, who arrived and administered CPR about 15 minutes later. Robert Dziekanski was pronounced dead on the scene.
His last words, in Polish, were only understood after the witness’s video was translated: “Have you lost your minds? Why?”
On Friday, the Braidwood Inquiry (the latest in a series of reports) was released to the public. Although it cast some criticism on the airport staff, the report (and the public’s rage) has focused on the “shameful conduct by a few officers.” (This article is not about the details of that conduct. There are plenty of online news stories that can fill you in if you haven’t heard too much already.)
I had avoided the video since it became public in November 2007, because the mere mention of the subject made me feel angry. My angry thoughts were directed at the police, who had killed an unarmed, innocent man.
Not until I finally watched the video on Friday, and read more details online, did I understand more, from a human perspective, about what brought this Polish immigrant to his death.
In those ten lonely hours, after a long trans-atlantic flight, the confusion of customs, and the confusion of his mother’s whereabouts, no human being was able to help Robert Dziekanski. He was exhausted, alone, confused, hungry and probably dehydrated as well. (The autopsy could only report that there were no drugs or alcohol in his system – not whether he’d had any food or water in the last 12 hours.)
The airport staff were more concerned about the other 300 people coming through than they were about this one lost man. It seems to me that they saw him as a potential threat, and not a man in need. They were confused as well. They did not know how to communicate with him, where he came from, or where he needed to go. Their operating parameters involved controlling and restricting people, not reaching out with a gentle hand of compassion.
Before watching the video, I had lots of strong opinions about the police. After watching, my heart filled with grief for this lost and confused man in a strange country, where no one could care for his most basic needs, and his only relative was not allowed to meet him. Robert Dziekanski died alone, because we didn’t know how to deal with him.
This goes way beyond one incident at an airport. It is a telling sign for our times. In this short, tragic video, I see that we, as a people, have lost our ability to help strangers. People are expected to take care of themselves. If I see someone stalled on the roadside, I assume that he’s already called for help on his cell phone. After all, everyone has a cell phone, and everyone has access to emergency services.
If there is a fire, someone has probably already called the fire department. If there is a brawl, someone has called the police. If there is a man wandering around an airport terminal, then surely someone else has it under control.
I don’t need to do anything. They don’t want my help. The ambulance will be here any minute. And the list of excuses goes on: excuses for why I do not need to help my neighbor. Excuses, because I don’t know how to help my neighbor. Excuses, because sometimes it’s dangerous to get involved.
What would have happened if the staff at YVR had been trained in human compassion? What if they had taken an active interest in helping him get where he needed to go? What if they had told his mother what was going on, and helped them get united after the wait was over? What if they had used their hearts rather than their bureaucratic brains?
Law enforcement officers, including airport staff, are trained to deal with threats to public safety. They are trained in fear, not love. They are trained to stop the bad guy, not help the good guy.
This time, Robert Dziekanski was the “bad guy.” Except he wasn’t bad. He was just a guy. And after they stopped him, they didn’t know what to do with him.
The Braidwood Inquiry cited “the shameful conduct of a few officers.” As a legal Inquiry, it has no business talking about the cultural and societal issues behind this death. It says that the airport staff could have done more to help an immigrant who does not speak English. It cannot say anything about our need, as human beings, to treat each other with compassion and kindness, and not fear.
A Course In Miracles was written about 30 years ago, and probably has just as much to say about Robert Dziekanski’s death as the Braidwood Inquiry does. It talks about our collective insanity as a human race. Here we are, children of God, and we cannot see ourselves for who we really are. If we could, we would treat each other with respect and compassion. But we have lost our divine memory, so instead, we focus on guilt, fear and attack. We kill innocent people, because we don’t know what else to do with them.
Robert Dziekanski’s last words echo far beyond the customs hall at YVR. They were directed at four Canadian police officers, but they cry out to every human being on the face of this planet, our hearts filled with fear, our hands covered in the blood of our brothers and sisters.
Have you lost your minds? Why?