Landing in a clean, well-lighted place

Krzysztof Kotarski

“I have a thing with airports…”

“Be more specific, Kris.”

“Ok, let me start again.

“I first began to think about this after I saw the video of Robert Dziekanski getting killed in Vancouver… remember? He was the Polish guy who got Tasered by the police because he was acting all ‘agitated’ after hours and hours of being stuck in the international arrivals area where no one could tell him what to do.

“He was moving to Canada to be with his mother… he got on the plane, landed, but something went wrong. He got stuck in the no-man’s land between luggage and immigration, or immigration and luggage… you know how it goes. He did not speak enough English to get himself sorted out, so he was left to his own devices, he got frustrated, and eventually he got killed.”

“What did they shock him for?”

“Oh, who knows… they probably didn’t know any better… you have to understand, Canadian police… well, let’s just say that the best and brightest probably aren’t the ones patrolling airports at 1:30 in the morning. Someone gave them Tasers and they use them like toys. There were four of them, one of him, and rather than figuring out a way to talk to him or to put him down another way, they got their Tasers out and zapped the poor guy instead. I think they told him to put his hands down on a table, but he put his hands up instead. He didn’t speak a word of English, so… you know…

“I remember watching the news the next morning… the police were giving their own version of the story…. ‘he was agitated… public safety… officers acted as they were trained… will review…’ you know how they talk. I don’t think that this is different in any country—I remember watching the Brits try to explain themselves after they shot that poor Brazilian on the tube. Cops always say the same things after they screw up…

“Anyway, there were a few witnesses in Vancouver, and there was a tape too. They tried to argue with the witnesses for a while and to sanitize the thing a bit, but the tape quickly put the cops in their place. You could see it black on white—four cops surround him, and a few seconds later the guy is writhing on the ground and screaming. The cops cuffed him and then just stood around… they didn’t try to give him CPR or anything. When you watch the tape, you wonder whether you actually saw him die, or whether his heart stopped after the guy put his camera away.

“In any case, the media jumped on the story, the public was outraged, and the police were embarrassed for a few days. Hell, there were even protests—in Canada! Would you believe that? The government and the cops quickly began some ‘review process,’ the pace of everything slowed to a crawl, and the story faded from view, like they all do, once the initial anger went away.

“The poor man’s mother was crushed… she’s the one who talked him into coming to Canada in the first place, and I cannot imagine how terrible she must have felt knowing that her son died over something so stupid. Imagine coming to the airport, waiting for your kid, realizing that something went wrong and thinking that he never arrived, and then heading back home, on a long-haul bus no less, trying to piece together what had happened.”

“You think she thinks it’s her fault?”

“I really, really hope not… she just invited him to come, and then this happened. I guess that she was at the airport waiting for him for a few hours but no one could tell her where he was. You know when you sit there and wait for people to come out of the gate? Well, she waited for a long time, and no one came. For some reason, he got stuck in the airport void, and since he did not speak any English, he never stumbled out. She was looking for him and asking people for help, but no one bothered to go in and check… I don’t know, I couldn’t imagine her doing anything more, but I think that losing a son like that… it’s just such a shame, isn’t it?”

“What happened to the cops?”

“Commission after commission, inquiry after inquiry, and they got off. The Taser people keep insisting that it wasn’t the Taser that killed him… and the police don’t want to admit to doing anything wrong because they’ll get sued. It’s not their way to admit to anything anyway… did the Rodney King people ever apologize?

“I read that the cops are still working, reassigned now, but that one of them has another case pending against him. No charges, no suspensions, not even for the spokesman who tried to whitewash the whole thing. You’d think it was North Korea or something…”

“So why airports? You started saying something about airports…”

“Well yeah, because I’m scared that this is the future… that the airport rules and the airport mentality will seep into other areas of life. Think about it—all the rules at the airport… all the surveillance… checkpoints… customs… they can search you, pad you down, question you, hold you, lock you up, I can’t think of a place that I feel more helpless than a giant international airport. Have you ever been to Ben Gurion? I think that it’s the worst there… they even interrogate you as you enter and leave.”

“They’re scared of terrorism?”

“Spies too. But in the end, they end up harassing anyone and everyone who enters and leaves, holding people arbitrarily, trying to intimidate the hell out of everyone. I always wonder about governments—if they could pull the public safety card on anything and everything just as easily, where else would we have, you know, questions, metal detectors, pat-downs and so on…”

“Well, it’s already in government buildings… office towers… I see what you mean.”

“You forget hotels and nightclubs. And all of London seems to be under camera surveillance, and the technology keeps getting better and better…

“…Don’t look at me like that… I’m not trying to say that the government is out to get us and that we should all live off the grid or anything like that, but it’s frightening, you know? When they killed that poor guy in Vancouver, they all got away with it just because the rules allowed them to Taser him as they did. Morally, it’s repugnant, but legally… That’s where the divide is these days. The rules don’t reflect our morals, or our common sense—they make sense in their own logical way, but when something strange like the Vancouver thing happens, something that defies any simple categorization, they assume the worst and put the guy down…”

“So you’re worried that this will become normal everywhere else too? I can’t imagine that they’d ever treat you like that at a Seven-Eleven…”

“Well no, I don’t think that it will ever be quite that bad, but the thing is, the potential for this to spread is enormous. The more people talk themselves into the fact that the world is so dangerous, the more likely it is that this way of doing things will permeate beyond the airport or the government office.

“That’s why the Vancouver thing is so important—when you look at the poor guy getting Tasered on the ground, you begin to wonder… could that be my kid, could that be me? You may even think about those cops protecting you or killing him in your name for your safety, but even if you don’t delve into it too deeply, at least you begin to wonder what the heck they’d do to you in that situation. You speak English, so you’d understand them well enough to put your hands on that damned table instead of raising them up, but is that enough to avoid the electric shock? Or what if it’s a different country, and you don’t speak their language well enough to get by. What if you land in Warsaw, get confused, and Dziekanski’s countrymen hit you first, and then ask questions later?”

“Are you not making too much of this?”

“Maybe so. But just imagine what would happen if everywhere felt like a giant airport. Would you still feel free… would you believe that the cops, the clerks and the shopkeepers were actually on our side?”

“Well, at least it’d be clean and well lit…”

“That’s true, there’s always that.”

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