Thursday, November 17, 2005

Large Dead Animals

Kate McMillan reprints part of an article by Mark Helprin over at the Claremont Institute, and proceeds to discourage rebuttal, saying that the piece should simply be read as the reason she and her political co-religionists see us on the Left as enemies. Fair enough; it's her site. But the article does call aloud for a strenuous rebuttal--it is a characteristically dishonest and tendentious screed, a small army of straw figures out on a Wild Man Weekend. Here, then, is Mark Helprin, with my comments.

Why does the Left so often abstain from defending not only American interests but, after September 11th, the United States itself? During the Cold War, one could always suspect that democratic socialists lusted in their hearts for Leninism, and might have given themselves over had the balance of power shifted eastward.

Some of the most savage red-baiting I have ever encountered took place among social-democratic ranks here in Canada. In the US, to argue that such people as Norman Thomas were closet Leninists is tinfoil-hat stuff, not even worth refuting. But it is clear, on the other hand, that brute fascism has a visceral appeal to many mainstream "conservatives": witness Margaret Thatcher’s great admiration for Augusto Pinochet, the bloodstained Butcher of Santiago, for example. Or Ngo Cao Ky, one of a string of US-installed puppet princes in South Vietnam, saying, "My only hero is Hitler." Or recent attempts to rehabilitate Francisco Franco as merely a misunderstood conservative.

This was at least a plausible explanation for their opposition to virtually any measure of Western defense, and their perpetual horror of anti-Communism.

Our "perpetual horror" was of freaks of nature like the House Un-American Activities Committee, the endless witchhunts, the use of the code-word "communist" to apply to everything from trade union organizing to the fluoridation of water, and imperialist wars of intervention allegedly to "contain communism" but in fact to advance US interests, corporate and geopolitical: Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Vietnam, Nicaragua, the list goes on and on. Our own RCMP played the same games, infiltrating campus organizations, the usual. Even student opposition to the war in Vietnam, or to the mutually-assured destruction of the nuclear stalemate, was branded "communist."

But no force, it would seem, should be capable of transforming even a lifetime of socialist ardor into sympathy for absolutist mullahs, 10th-century tribal warriors, decapitators, and circumcisors of women.

And no force has, except in the fevered minds of conservatives, who were quite happy to support such reactionaries themselves when it suited them, as in Afghanistan, and still do (the torture-state of Saudi Arabia, for example). Now the word "terrorist" has become a new signifier for everything the right hates and fears, the word "communist" having lost its energy.

It would make no sense. And yet as the immense plumes of smoke and dust still were rising in strength from the ruins of the World Trade Center, and not a single shot had been fired or a single soldier sacrificed in what was to become the War on Terrorism, the worldwide Left mobilized instantaneously to assert that such a war—the particulars and extent of which it could not know—would be unjust.

Let's be clear, here. A group largely made up of Saudi nationals flies a plane into the World Trade Centre. This is followed by two wars: one in Afghanistan, the next in Iraq (which had no ties to Al Qaida). The Left has pretty good antennae when it comes to predicting the wild lashing-out of the Right, but our prescience in the instant cases is criticized, although we were right from the get-go. Now we have (in capital letters, to accent the fetishizing of American foreign policy that’s currently going on) a "War on Terrorism" the "particulars and extent of which" we still don't know (and by "we" I mean all of us). And we're supposed to sit back and simply trust in Bush and his loony advisers? What's good for the country is good for Halliburton, it seems, but the rest of us have some questions we'd like answered.

It is true that since then many opponents and proponents of the war, despite being not even decimally aware of pertinent facts or relations, have managed to enlarge their unexamined notions into either complex and disconnected conspiracy theories involving oil, or manic crusader-atavistic visions of remaking the Arab and Muslim worlds, and that the dust from these ignorant armies as they debate with the finesse of English football hooligans rises into a plume of its own.

Does anyone here have the remotest idea what Helprin is wittering on about here? In the fog of obscurantist language appears the silhouette of a notion that we on the Left stand for this or that proposition, all of which he is about to demolish with the finesse of an arsonist setting fire to scarecrows.

But, like a mammoth perfectly preserved in ice and uncomplicated by subsequent infections, the Left's purely reflexive impulses immediately following September 11 are worthy of attention.

We shall dub this the “Large Dead Animal (LDA)” thesis.

Most remarkable is the initial and continuing indifference both to those who perished and to the country itself as it came under attack. On a political level, the Left could summon no indignation after assaults upon America's capital, defense headquarters, civil aviation, embassies, warships, and chief city, any one of which would be a classic and unambiguous casus belli, while in strange contrast it seemed to regard the mere presence of Americans in Saudi Arabia, the trade in oil, and the Arab world's exposure to American popular culture as unpardonable aggressions.

The Left showed no such indifference, of course, to this atrocity. But what I find remarkable is the Right’s initial and continuing indifference to those who have perished in its recent foreign adventures: tens of thousands of civilian Iraqi men, women and children, thousands, too, of Afghan civilians; before that, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dead due to sanctions, deaths that were, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, “worth it”; the use of white phosphorus in battle, originally denied; und so weiter. Not a tear shed, not a hand wrung.

And the Left, rather than considering this airplane full of nationals from an allied power as erupting from some conspiracy that is everywhere and nowhere, began to ask questions about the root causes of such hatred and violence. For that, we were, and are, excoriated by the Right, whose level of analysis rarely rises above the "Let's do it" plane.

Irrationality on a political level from these quarters has never been a shock. On a personal level, however, the predominant response of the intellectual Left was a mystery. It was as if the thousands of crushed and incinerated men, women, and children—those who threw themselves into a quarter-mile abyss rather than have the flesh seared off their bones as they stood in the wind at glassless walls, the small children who died in terror after watching hysterical fanatics slit the throats of screaming stewardesses, and so on, for there are almost three thousand stories—simply did not exist. How does one explain such an egregious absence of sympathy (much less assertions that "they" deserved it, or that it was a work of art) among endlessly self-proclaiming empathetics whose stock in trade is to milk compassion even from the Rock of Gibraltar? This is a real rather than a rhetorical question, because it is significant of a great division.

No, this is a rhetorical, not a real question. And, like other rhetorical questions, it contains precisely the answer that Helprin wants to assert in the first place--a bald, lying assertion based upon nothing at all. But I do wonder, in this connection, why he and his co-religionists are so silent about the Iraqi civilians, screaming as white phosphorus eats into their flesh, or, just before the war, the kids in hospitals dying long and painful deaths because of sanctions, or, earlier than that, the roasting to death of Vietnamese civilians drenched with burning napalm? Could it be that only white people are capable of feeling pain?

The nature of one's reaction to aggression against one's country will often be determined by whether one sees the polity primarily as individuals who must struggle with the imperfection of being bound into a collective, or as a collective that must overcome the circumstantial imperfection that it comprises individuals. For wildebeest thundering across a plain in Africa, it takes a village. The herd defends itself by sacrificing a minuscule proportion of its number and moving on. If the herd were to turn upon the jackals preying upon it, the jackals would be pulverized almost instantly. Nonetheless, if the price for the escape of ten thousand is the sacrifice of only a few, that is how it is done when the collective is paramount.

But animals like bears, tigers, and lions, that wander individually or in small groups, know that their survival depends upon how they fight, and their willingness to fight is so well understood that they are seldom attacked, whereas to a predator a herd in flight is a living contradiction of the maxim that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Mankind is not a genetic set piece, divided into lone wolves and lemmings, but rather the division is a reflection of habituation to the collective—indeed, worship of it—as opposed to a habitual resistance to it. Capitulation and appeasement may sometimes be merely subcategories of a controlling impulse that produces both. When the Left bends to America's enemies it may not be a result of cowardice or betrayal, but of loyalty to the omelette so single-minded that it precludes consideration of the eggs.

The LDA thesis here gives way to small animals and ultimately eggs, but in such sloppy writing do we not discern a reverse ontogeny, a large, thundering argument recapitulating phylogeny in reverse? The best that Helprin can do in his laboured analogy would appear to be to argue that individual large-animal responses are better than animal collectives. The former seem to avoid all casualties, while the latter accept some as the price of survival.

For the life of me, I can't follow this analogy, if that is what it is really what it is supposed to be. But I'll try. Since the casualties of the current US overseas initiatives are legion, may I take it that the American people, in a kind of herd instinct, have agreed to sacrifice more than 2,000 of their own and inflict many times that number of fatalities upon foreign non-combatants, because they have mindlessly swallowed the Administration's rhetoric that this is the price of survival? I guess I can accept that.

But Helprin does get a little confusing when he reduces animal collectives to herds of wildebeest. There are also, of course, prides of lions and packs of wolves, whose instinct to hunt and kill is always in the foreground--perhaps like the US, which can’t seem to get though a decade without invading some other country. (I'm just trying to follow the analogy, so don’t jump on me, folks, for mocking the rhetorical ineptness of a conservative attempting to sound like an intellectual.)

At times, of course, the collective should take precedence. It is a matter of finding the appropriate balance for impulses that contend eternally because man was created as an individual and yet there is more than one of him. And, depending upon the wind, one must occasionally tack to port even if one's preference is to tack to starboard. But by its hostility to virtually every part of the War on Terrorism, and its continuing assertion that in this war almost every step America has taken is an unnecessary and wasteful overreaction, the Left implicitly makes the argument that the dead of September 11 represent only one one-hundred-thousandth of the American population, and that although intelligent people understand the implications of this, the impatient jingoes who 'control' the country do not.

As the Right, I suppose, asserts that the countless dead Iraqi and Afghan civilians are only a small percentage of the total population, their deaths "worth it" to reconstruct the American version of democracy around the world. This is their implicit and explicit argument, in fact. [Editorial note: the word is "jingoists."]

After all, a herd of 100,000 wildebeest would neither miss just one of its number, nor even pause to reflect. But where the Left in all its wisdom gravely miscalculates is that the dead of September 11th were not wildebeest, and neither are we. That is why America, for all its failings and sins, has not gone down, and will not go down, on bended knee.

No, clearly it will not. Instead, it will continue to use brute force to ensure that the rest of the world goes down on bended knee to its imperial might. It will whine in fatuous columns like Helprin's when a few voices are raised in conscientious opposition; and, if people resist more forcefully, it will greet this resistance with bombs, artillery, more bombs, white phosphorus and a cloud of triumphalist rhetoric.

And here I would echo/mirror Kate’s comment: articles like this go a long way to explaining the Left reaction to the Right’s hypocrisy, lies and frankly sociopathic lack of empathy. As for the large dead animal that we have been compared to, I feel that a more realistic deployment of this analogy (mammoths in ice don't have reflexes, Mark) might be to look at the fate of a small children's zoo in Ramallah, and juxtapose it with the comments about Ramallah as a zoo here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Twenty-third, fifth

Another one of these tag memes. I thought I'd get hit eventually. Thanks a bunch, Timmy G.

Here are the instructions, not, I notice, followed by all: Find your twenty-third post. Pluck out your fifth sentence. Then--write a short fictional piece with the sentence as the first one in the piece. And tag five more people in the blogosphere.

I tag:

Small Dead Animals

The Amazing Wonderdog


Cathie from Canada

Miss Vicky

My brief contribution:

Yet we are politically selective, if not outright cynical, in what we deem to be "terrorism." So I claimed at the campfire when we were into one of those late-night beer-fueled discussions, and I was holding forth as usual, not having a blog at the time, and I suspect I slurred my words a little. Al Caider, who lives just down the street from me, wasn't so sure, though. As far as he's concerned, the kid who delivers the papers is a terrorist, for spreading news of terrorism. The old lady next door to him is a terrorist, because she lets ragweed grow rampant in her garden. In fact, when you come right down to it, Al says, everybody’s a terrorist.

"Does that apply to you?" George Bouche quizzed him. "You don’t drink, you won't touch the hot-dogs--hell, you could be one of those Moozlims we keep hearing about."

"I don’t drink because I used to drink. And road-kill sausages aren't my thing," said Al.

George was unconvinced. "OK, what's that little rug you keep carrying around with you?"

"It's a toupee," said Al, sounding a little miffed.

That shut George down for a while. Then, being clever, "Got your Christmas lights up yet?"

"What's this, Guantanamo?" Al asked, stung beyond endurance. "This is supposed to be a barbecue, not Abu Ghraib."

The rest is a little hazy. A small knot of former friends bore down on Al. I remember corn cobs, shorn of their kernels, spilling off his paper plate. I remember cell-phones in use, I remember a car showing up...but I can barely remember Al, I can't even visualize his face, or his wife's face, or his eight-year-old son's face.

Our summer get-togethers aren't the same now. You have to go through a metal detector, we've got Men in Black types patrolling the perimeter, and, worst of all, my buddies have to go through a security check, every time, before they're allowed to get near the fire.

But, you know what? The hot-dogs taste as good as ever. And what else really matters at a barbecue?

Monday, November 14, 2005

The body politic and its

After a detailed clinical examination of the political actors in Canada at the moment, I fear that my diagnosis, outlined below, is not for the prudish or faint of heart. Worse, my prognosis is a pessimistic one.

True, an electorate clearly recovering from acute chremastistophilia
* may be a step closer to a final cure after the Liberals, on the ropes and clearly the worse for wear, seem to have talked themselves into thinking that they have a better chance in a Christmas election than a February one. (Is Paul Martin talking to the ghost of his dog? Or is he a taphephiliac?**)

Who knows. The political calculations here must be Byzantine indeed. In any case, the hematolagnia*** of the Opposition, brought to a near-crisis by Gomery's exposure of the chronic Liberal mysophilia,****will reach its climax later this month and thereafter, when the government falls in an almost certain confidence vote.

As a less-than-enthusiastic NDPer, and a strong supporter of proportional representation, I look at the current stats and weep. Public opinion? There is no "public opinion." We have two strong regionally-based parties, neither of which gives a damn about Canada, a great, loathsome kleptocratic party that has settled upon the nation like a noisome cloud, with the continuing support of
about one-third of the electors who continue to suffer from ozolagnia*****, and a mildly progressive social-democratic formation that has brought along a fan and a perfumed handkerchief.

How have things come to this? I blame, among other things, our antiquated first-past-the-post system. Once a national party has established itself, the only real hope of beating it in a plurality system is to exaggerate ragional issues, play on disaffection and alienation, and gull the voters into a kind of tribalism that is ultimately destructive of the Canadian polity. If anything points to the serious need for electoral reform, it is the current fragmented state of federal politics. And even with electoral reform, in which a third of the voters insisting on the Liberals will get a third of the seats and no more in the House, it will take time, perhaps too much time, for the Canadian political culture to change, adapt and coalesce into a national vision, or, more accurately, into a tri-national vision where aboriginal peoples, anglophones and francophones can find their common and stable ground.

In the meantime, we're about to watch the country descend into a bout of vorarephilia****** over the Christmas period, FPTP will inevitably mean that my party loses seats that it shouldn't because of some upstart dendrophiliacs*******, and the political universe, instead of unfolding as it should, will suffer accelerating entropy.

Not a pretty picture, as Krafft-Ebbing might have said.

*sexual arousal from being robbed
**a person sexually aroused by being buried alive
***abnormal attraction to blood
****abnormal attraction to filth
*****abnormal attraction to strong smells
******sexual arousal from eating or being eaten
*******those who are sexual attracted to trees

Friday, November 11, 2005

And lest we forget…

A tiny handful of veterans of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the XVth International Brigade, or the "Mac-Paps," remains officially unacknowledged by the Canadian government and by the Canadian Legion. Some 1600 brave Canadian volunteers, mostly serving in this Battalion, went to Spain to fight fascism before it was fashionable to do so, suffering heavy casualties-- half were killed on the battlefield.

Many veterans of the Spanish Civil War weren't permitted to enlist in the forces when Canada entered the Second World War in 1940. They were (to use the FBI cant phrase) "premature anti-fascists." Fascism is only bad if the government says it is, apparently, and Canada’s position on the Spanish Civil War was one of shameful neutrality. Francisco Franco's forces invited the Nazis in to test their newest equipment on civilian populations, while the West stood by in silent complicity.

I was fortunate enough to attend an unveiling ceremony in Ottawa in 2001 for a memorial to these fallen heroes. The Governor-General at the time, Her Excellency Adrienne Clarkson, assisted in the unveiling and gave a moving tribute. I shook the hands of the few veterans able to make it to the ceremony.

These men, many of whom had fought injustice at home and were part of the On to Ottawa Trek, deserve to be remembered and honoured for their fight against fascism. I take this opportunity to do so on Remembrance Day, 2005.

Kolumn Kop-out

A boil has been lanced in Ottawa, and it isn't a pretty sight. Today's Ottawa Citizen contains an account of yet another police "internal investigation," this time of officers who swooped down on a Somalian restaurant in January 2004, put all the Somalians in cuffs but made an exception for the one white man present, held some of them overnight, allegedly caused physical injury to one co-owner--and all this on the basis of an anonymous call that someone on the premises had a gun, after an argument had taken place with their next-door neighbours.

In July, 2004, Deputy Chief of Police Larry Hill, the happy face invariably trotted out to show the various minority communities that the cops are their friends, stated that the police were discussing an out-of-court settlement, but it never materialized. Now the case is going to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, referred there by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Here is what the latter has to say: "There is sufficient evidence to indicate that the complainants were subjected to unequal treatment and discrimination because of an intersection of race, colour, ethnic origin, ancestry, age and gender in services." The report of the OHRC goes on to state that the evidence indicates that two of the officers involved in the raid used excessive force.

The restaurant,as I noted yesterday, has gone under. According to the owner, there was a "continuous police presence" around his restaurant, until it was forced to close this past March. "We never had a chance to prove ourselves," he said. Repeated raids did the same to health care worker
Tracey Gooden’s dream of having a West Indian restaurant.

Meanwhile, in another part of this increasingly murky forest, the police have presented their side of the Danny Gauthier case that I blogged about over the last couple of days. They are assisted by a particularly witless column by Citizen commentator Kelly Egan, which will be duly fisked in a moment. But first, to the official police account:

Gauthier, according to the internal police investigation, was "uncooperative," and was therefore "grounded." (As a reminder of how this was done, check out this video of the events.) The two officers who did the grounding stated that his hands were under his stomach, resisting attempts to handcuff him. The report claims that Gauthier was in violation of the Liquor Licence Act because he was intoxicated, and that he was trespassing, too, because he refused to leave the Tim Horton’s restaurant where all of this took place.

Constable Shane Henderson, the beefy, menacing-looking fellow in the video, claimed that, before the take-down, Gauthier took his right hand out of his pocket and "raised it in an assaultive and aggressive manner." Both officers admit hitting Gauthier with "close-handed hard strikes" until he was handcuffed. They claim that they were afraid he would get into a van they saw in the parking lot and drive off drunk. And he had refused to answer their questions about whether the van was his, or where he had come from. They claim that they had no idea that he was staying just across the street, until they found a pass key in his pocket after the arrest.

The report also noted that two restaurant employees told investigators that Gauthier was intoxicated, and that one had asked Constable Nesbitt, the first police officer seen in the video, to "do us a favour and kick him out." But the same witness described the arrest as "pretty rough."

One of Gauthier's co-workers was interviewed, and stated that he had had only two or three drinks earlier. He himself claims that he had consumed five beers during the course of the whole evening, and was tired after having seen twenty clients that day. The medical report indicated, however, that Gauthier had been prescribed the anti-depressant Paxil, which should not be combined with alcohol. The report concluded that the two officers had behaved appropriately, being confronted by "an aggressive, intoxicated male who refused to identify himself and refused to comply with their commands."

Now, take another close look at that video, and see how well it conforms to this version of events.

First of all, did he refuse to leave the restaurant? We see Gauthier attempting to leave on three occasions, and being pushed back each time.

Ws he intoxicated? We see him clear off his table, walk to the garbage, and then to the counter: there is no indication of staggering. Indeed, he continues to drink his coffee at the counter, while talking to the two officers.

Did he raise his right hand in "an assaultive manner?" The video shows him, just before the take-down, removing his right hand from his pocket and gesturing, as he talks to Constable Nesbitt. But his shoulders remain down; his body language is anything but aggressive--unlike that of Officer Henderson, which is aggressive from the start and throughout the episode.

The video, in other words, does not appear to back up the officers' claims. As for being "uncooperative," free citizens of the country do not have to answer questions by officious police officers, and it is no crime to refuse to do so. And what business did they have issuing "commands?"

Enter Kelly Egan, in a column (subscriber-only) entitled "Gauthier caused his own troubles."

The piece is laced with sarcasm, stuffed with wrong-headed assertions, and signally lacking in facts. Did Gauthier author his own misfortune to some degree? He's been "rather silent" about that, says Egan, a "perfect angel, surely."

Perhaps Gauthier was silent because he wasn't to blame for his troubles, as the video would strongly suggest. He had dozed off for a few minutes, but, says Egan in his cheap sarcastic way, he was "not drunk, though, he assures. Like me, I’m sure you've had power naps in all-night restaurants. Happens all the time."

Indeed, at 1:00 a.m., which is the time in question, it's not uncommon to see people close their eyes for a while in such places. They can simply be tired, not drunk; but admitting this possibility would undermine Egan's thesis.

"If a constable on patrol finds a sleeping drunk on the sidewalk or in a quasi-public place like a coffee shop," he says, "she has a duty, I would argue, to at least inquire about Mister Sleepy's particulars."

Well, er, no, Mr. Egan, she does not. Her duty is to uphold the law. The question is, was Gauthier breaking it? Notice that Egan has already concluded, on no evidence, that Gauthier was "a sleeping drunk," and compared him to someone passed out on a sidewalk.

"Does the public reasonably expect her to ignore him?" he asks.

Of course it does, unless he was breaking the law. She woke him, and the video shows what happened next. He was not permitted to leave. The two officers put on their gloves and roughed him up. As Gauthier's lawyer said on CBC yesterday, police don’t have the right to come into a restaurant and boss people around.

"It is quite plausible, too...that she asked the staff about the hunched-over man in the loud shirt," Egan continues.

So, without facts to go on, we enter the realm of pure speculation. And we get a clear hint that Gauthier's clothing is more evidence that he was up to no good. I must remember to pitch my collection of aloha shirts next time I'm out and about in warm weather.

Finally, Egan has a lucid moment. "When she rouses him, she is no doubt trying to ascertain whether he is a) he is [sic] drunk or sober; b) conscious or in a coma, and c) open to a gentle suggestion that he retire to a proper bed."

Ah, if only. But, as the video makes plain, no "gentle suggestion" appeared to have been forthcoming, and his attempts to retire to his bed across the street were in vain. It is to be regretted that our intrepid columnist didn't follow up this promising line of enquiry.

Instead, he goes on to suggest that the officer asked for Gauthier's name, and that "he refused to provide it, or answer any other questions about his identity. He can argue Charter rights until he’s blue in the face [black and blue, shurely?--ed.]. In fact, if he's drunk, he may already be guilty of a criminal act."

This is sheer nonsense. He doesn't have to answer an overbearing officer's questions. And look at the weasel-language here: "if he's drunk," " guilty of a criminal act." In fact, it's not a criminal offence to be drunk: Egan should check his Criminal Code before making such stupid claims.

But he rushes on to defend the indefensible, and now blunders into the realm of the absurd. "The man could be a fugitive from the law, he could be in violation of a probation order or a parole condition, he could be a serial rapist, he could be on the FBI most-wanted list."

At this point one can see flecks of spittle on Egan’s lips. "Speaking in the abstract," he goes on, whatever that phrase means, "how would it look--on videotape--if Const. Nesbitt comes across a sleeping criminal in a coffee shop, gives him a once-over and lets him go before finding out who he is and what he's up to?"

Indeed. If a person is asleep, he might be drunk. If he's drunk, he might be a serial rapist. I think I follow. But why stop with someone who's nodded off? Why not interrogate everybody she comes across, in restaurants, on the street, in any public place? They could be bank robbers. They could be serial killers. No wonder the Ottawa Police Service needs more officers.

"In addition," Egan ploughs on, "there seems to be a suggestion that Mr. Gauthier was going to get in a car and drive back to Montreal." Seems to be a suggestion? Certainly the cops claimed this, but on what evidence? Until the man actually pulls out keys and attempts to enter a vehicle, he has done nothing illegal. Suggestions are simply not enough grounds for a beating and an arrest.

Gauthier was a salesman, says Egan, so he "should have been able to talk his way out of a jam. Instead, things got worse." In other words, despite the fact that the video shows a relaxed Gauthier doing quite a lot of talking, his failure to be persuasive is yet more evidence of his guilt.

Then comes the arrest. "[I]t's clear from the video images that he will not submit willingly," says Egan, who has obviously been watching a different video from the one available to us. There was no aggression demonstrated by Gauthier at any time, even though he had now been confronted by Officer Henderson, whose aggressive posture throughout is unmistakeable. Nor is it at all clear why Gauthier should "submit." (Why should any citizen "submit" under these or similar circumstances? This isn't a police state. "Submit," hell.)

Our columnist goes on to speculate about the unpredictable nature of drunks, and then, tellingly, asks how anyone is to know whether Gauthier was drunk at the time. Which, I guess, is the point, but he manages, once again, to miss it. Instead, he concludes:

It does appear that Mr. Gauthier sustained a couple of hard whacks during the arrest. He certainly came out looking worse for wear. Possibly, this was excessive force. Surely, however, this is a byproduct of his own intransigence.

Egan ends his sorry piece by stating that citizens have "a provide a minimum of cooperation when faced with a police officer's enquiry. Silence cannot be our sole offering." And he cannot avoid one more gratuitous swipe at Gauthier: "[L]ook in the mirror, man: a halo you will not see."

Egan's grasp of civil liberties, shall we say, is tenuous. Ordinary citizens, presumed innocent, are not accountable to police officers who want to flex a little authority or muscle. Certainly their cooperation with the police is reasonable under a wide range of circumstances, even if not mandated by law. But a man dozing off in a coffee shop late at night has a right, it seems to me, to keep himself to himself when awakened, proceed on his way unimpeded, and not be smacked around by police officers with nothing better to do.

NOTE: The Amazing Wonderdog has some excellent analysis of the officers' body language here and here.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Ottawa Police: the beat goes on

To Serve and Protect

Watch this video (red icon two paragraphs down).

The boy and girl in blue depicted here have just been cleared of any wrongdoing by an "internal investigation" by the Ottawa Police, and Chief Vincent Bevan says they did no wrong. Meanwhile the police union is planning to sue the beating victim, and his lawyer, for speaking out.

Has our town gone mad?

Take a close look at the video. Pay special attention to the body language of the victim. He has just been wakened by the police officer on the left, after dozing off at his table. He proceeds to clean his table, and take a swig of his coffee, and then walks over to the counter and gets into a conversation with the officer. His shoulders are down and he appears relaxed. At no time has he staggered or shown any signs of impairment.

This doesn't even change when a beefy second officer shows up, looking menacing and blocking his path when he tries to leave. The two officers then put on their gloves, and you just know what's about to happen. The beefy one puts him in a headlock, taking him to the floor, and begins to beat him. Even through all of that, the man's legs stay extended--there is no hint of him fighting back or struggling in any way.

Meet Danny Gauthier, single father of two, a sales representative from Montreal. His hotel was just across the street from a Tim Horton's where the beating took place. He tried to leave to go there more than once, but he spent the night in jail instead. The next day, photographs show a bruised face and swollen eyes. Having been denied medical attention while being held, he received treatment at the Montfort Hospital the next day.

Meet Constable Tricia Nesbitt, and Constable Shane Henderson, serving and protecting.

Even the Ottawa Citizen, which has been intolerant in the past of police critics, found this too much--and their editorial was clearly written before news of the latest whitewash internal investigation made its own front page. "It is impossible to view the video of Mr. Gauthier’s arrest, captured by a surveillance camera," the editorial reads, "without feeling queasy." No kidding.

Public Accountability

Let's be blunt: with Chief Vincent Bevan ("they followed procedure") in charge of the Ottawa Police, that queasy feeling is going to continue. There have been too many other incidents in the recent past--assaults on protesters during the G-20 protests in November 2001, the small army of police deployed to remove a few scared kids from an abandoned house (not a single charge was upheld in court, but tens of thousands of taxpayers' dollars fed this little adventure), bizarre raids on a Somalian and a West Indian restaurant, the savaging of a Lebanese family at a reunion, the Tasering of a peaceful protester, Paul Smith, who had been wrongly arrested in the first place, and now a beating, captured on videotape. In no case are Ottawa cops ever in the wrong, as far as Vince is concerned.

The restaurants are out of business now. An internal investigation of the attack on the family continues. Paul Smith went to the provincial oversight body, OCCOPS, after another one of those nod, nod, wink, wink "internal investigations" found that his attackers had followed procedure. OCCOPS determined that excessive force had indeed been used: the adjudicator, Robert Fitches, said that an independently-shot videotape was "instrumental" in his findings, and contradicted police testimony at the inquiry. And now a video of what the victim calls in his lawsuit a "vicious, sadistic and unprovoked assault" is simply tossed aside by the Chief. It may as well have happened in broad daylight in Confederation Square for all he apparently cares: his people follow procedure, nothing can ever be dicey about Ottawa Police behaviour, here in the nation's capital the cops walk on water, and that's that.

There is a clear question of public accountability here that goes far beyond any one of these miserable incidents. Who’s in charge? The citizens of Ottawa (or any other town or city in Canada)? Or the police, too often acting as a law unto themselves (or, more accurately, above or to one side of the law), lying under oath, arrogantly dismissing any and all criticisms and complaints? What are ordinary constables in Ottawa to make of the police administration and its internal procedures that exonerate their brother and sister officers even in the face of a video like the one that the public can now view for themselves? Will this encourage them to be respectful and professional in carrying out their duties?

The answers to these questions are self-evident. What we need to do is take a hard look at structures of accountability. And the place to start, in Ontario, is with the civilian complaints system.

Civilian Review

Justice Patrick LeSage, after many months of receiving submissions on this matter, recently tabled a report, including a number of recommendations, now with the Attorney-General of Ontario, Michael Bryant, who is presently receiving submissions of his own. His key recommendation is for an independent body that would oversee the civilian complaints process, do its own investigations, and try to restore public confidence.

While I believe in Justice LeSage's good intentions--I appeared in front of him twice to assist in delivering submissions on the issue, and his questions were on point and intelligent--I do not believe that, even if implemented, this approach will improve matters significantly. An independent investigative agency will simply run full-tilt-boogie into the blue wall. Unless it is formidably resourced, not likely in the current climate, what we will have, in reality, is a harassed inspectorship scurrying to keep up, and meeting silence and a closing of police ranks at every turn. And even if something does turn up, how will it be handled? Without serious disciplinary measures in place for cops who kick over the traces, an investigation will not really address the continuing problems.

A better model was proposed by the Ottawa Witness Group (declaration of interest: I'm a member). We proposed a two-step complaints process, modeled upon a workplace grievance procedure: first, an internal hearing where the complainant and the police are represented, make argument and give evidence; and, if the complainant isn't satisfied with the outcome, an external review, at the municipal level, by an independent body, the Civilian Oversight Authority (COA). The important point to grasp here is that, while the police would continue to do their own investigations, the creation of an independent external body would change the dynamics considerably. Police management, knowing that their work could be open to challenge, will be encouraged to take a sterner view of police misbehaviour.

This system would be enhanced by a number of other measures. First, the independent COA would have powers to summon witnesses, compel testimony, and subpoena documents. Secondly, some types of complaints, such as those involving allegations of improper police violence, would proceed directly to the COA level. Thirdly, third-party complaints would be permitted (this recommendation was taken up by Justice LeSage, but in the context of his investigative model). Finally, an Office of the Citizen Advisor would be created to advise and assist civilian complainants, modeled on the Office of the Worker Advisor that helps workers with their WSIB claims.

Only this or a similar type of accountability mechanism will bring our police to heel. In the meantime, we all remain vulnerable to police excesses. And the police organization itself--paramilitary, secretive, well-armed--will continue to attract the wrong kind of people, from constable to chief.

Postscript: the OPS budget and the Men in Black

While all this has been going on, the Ottawa Police Service has submitted a budget to the City, demanding a $10.7 million increase over last year. Crime rates are dropping, with the exception of traffic offences, but somehow we need more police officers, more equipment, more fancy toys like those nifty Tasers.

Under antiquated provincial legislation, a police budget may either be accepted or rejected by City Council, but cannot be altered by our elected representatives. In the case of a rejection, OCCOPS can reinstate the budget--so much for democratic accountability in the twenty-first century.

If Ottawa-area residents are tired of watching and re-watching the Tim Horton's video, tonight and tomorrow night Ottawa CTV is showing where a significant amount of police money is going--no, they are not highlighting the OPS' fixed-wing aircraft, but their tactical squad, the "men in black." Stay tuned for this two-segment feature, part of the 6:00 p.m. news program, and check out all the neat weapons and testosterone-fuelled training sessions.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Ottawa Police on the beat

It was a bad day for Ottawa's finest. Paul Smith, a protester who had been Tasered, twice, by a police officer as he lay on the ground, in handcuffs, fully subdued after being mistakenly arrested, was vindicated--finally--more than two years afterwards. A hearing of the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services (OCCOPS) found Acting Sgt. Paulo Batista guilty of "unnecessary use of authority" (read: "brutality") during the incident. A police videocam somehow failed to capture the vital few seconds in which the assault took place, but a bystander was taking his own footage at the time and caught the whole affair on tape. I blogged about that incident here.

Hearings of this nature are rare at OCCOPS, a body not known for being unfriendly to police. Mr. Smith had previously complained to the Ottawa Police Service, who investigated themselves and found, surprise, surprise, that nothing was wrong. Their "Professional" Standards Branch responded to the complaint with a lengthy, self-serving letter in which they stated that "pain compliance" (read: "torture") was justified, because passive resistance is a form of active resistance. Perhaps--but don’t hold your breath--the OPS will now develop publicly-available guidelines for Taser use. Perhaps--but keep breathing--the McGuinty government in Ontario will act on the recommendations of the LeSage Commission that reviewed public complaints procedures in the province and urged the establishment of an independent system.

Hard on the heels of this setback, the OPS now finds itself defending a lawsuit by a Montreal salesman, who was viciously assaulted by police in a Montreal Road Tim Horton's last year. Don't take my word for it: watch the video for yourself. The two cops involved are now under investigation (on full pay, of course) thanks to a diligent Deputy Crown Attorney who, after seeing the video, withdrew the routine "resisting arrest" charge and three charges of "creating a disturbance" too, and asked the police to investigate the goings-on. The "Professional" Standards Branch will be doing the investigating once more, but maybe the video will make a difference, although it didn’t seem to do very much for Julie Cayer.

What is key here, in fact bone-chilling, is the fact that these cops are in trouble only because of increasingly-ubiquitous video cameras. Those of us who have fussed publicly about videocams and privacy rights may have to do a little re-thinking. Imagine the number of shady incidents taking place every day with no cameras around; imagine the number of innocents beaten up and then convicted on bogus charges of "resisting arrest" or "assault on police".

Video-tech is now drilling holes in the blue wall, but it's not enough. We need an independent review system for complaints against police, and we need a substantial change in police culture, something not likely to happen in Ottawa with Chief Vincent Bevan in charge. We need enough public education (community groups like the Ottawa Witness Group are doing a good job of this, but it shouldn't be left entirely to hard-pressed volunteers) to encourage people with complaints to come forward. We need a system, perhaps an Office of the Citizen Advisor, where such individuals can be guided through the process. Finally, when cops are found guilty of abuse, in Ottawa or elsewhere, they need to get more than a wrist-slap and a wink from a complaisant judicial system.

Public accountability is the issue; but the Ottawa police appear to be accountable to no one but themselves. No doubt this is duplicated in many other cities and towns across Ontario, and indeed across Canada. While Canadians are rightly demanding, in the wake of the Gomery inquiry, that politicians and public employees be made accountable, exceptions still get made for that group of public servants known as police. This has to stop.

Miss Vicky has some good commentary over at her place.


The Royal Canadian Legion has managed to combine astounding pettiness with an utter lack of political savvy by demanding that Bourque Newswatch remove the image of a poppy from that site--it's apparently viewed as a trademark infringement. Steven Clark, Secretary, Poppy and Remembrance Committee of the Royal Canadian Legion, wagged his finger and insisted that this could not be done without permission. Otherwise, said Bob Butt, Legion Director of Communications at Dominion Command, "it would be all over the place." Bourque is now displaying an image of the British poppy instead, which the Royal British Legion encourages all and sundry to download.

The right half of the blogosphere--the Legion's natural constituency, one might have thought--has erupted. When alleged property rights bang up against respect for fallen war veterans, the latter win hands down. But they aren't alone. I'm frankly gobsmacked by the pettifogging, incompetent, bureaucratic reaction of the RCL to having the poppy displayed on a blogsite without their permission. If it were being used for fundraising, or in a disrespectful manner, I could understand the reaction. But, come on, Steven Clark and Bob Butt, a little judgement is called for here, n'est-ce pas? Isn't the whole point respect? Shouldn't the poppy indeed be "all over the place" right about now?

Where am I coming from? My old man fought in World War Two, and that was a war that our side simply had to win. The Nazis damned near won it instead. I respect the people who died fighting the real Axis, not David Frum's fatuous rhetorical construction. (I wish the government would recognize the Spanish Civil War vets from the Mac-Paps as war vets too--there can't be more than half-a-dozen of them left, and every one of them was a hero. Let's hear it for "premature anti-fascism." But that's another thread.)

We live in a world where even the very stuff of life itself, DNA, is being grabbed up by multinationals. And we aren't talking just plants and animals here: there are human beings walking around today whose DNA has been patented. Nearly everything in the universe, it seems, is now subject to private ownership and commodification. When it comes to symbols, though, we are still to a large extent in the realm of the commons: even the Roman Catholic Church hasn't summoned up the chutzpah to try trademarking the cross.

The poppy is an ancient symbol, brought to fresh and lasting life in the popular mind by John McCrae's famous rondeau, In Flanders Fields. It doesn't, or shouldn't, belong to anyone, but to all of us. No organization allegedly promoting respect and remembrance should be embarking on this mean-spirited little piggy-trip.

We simply can't allow the Royal Canadian Legion to take such narrow proprietorship of what should be a common image that brings us all together, once a year, for a short period of solidarity between the dead and the living. Let's remember our veterans: indeed, let's remember the tens of millions, soldiers and civilians, who died at fascist hands. And let's stand up for them by displaying the poppy "all over the place." Lest we forget.

Note: I would be remiss if I did not offer a (belated) tail-wag to Bob Tarantino, who pointed out the distinction between "trademark" and "copyright" in his article on the poppy imbroglio here. I emended my article in consequence, but have been a little late in my acknowledgement.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Political organisms

Angry is pursuing a metaphor like a hound of heaven over at his site: Jack Layton and the NDP as virus in a dying Liberal host. This caused my brain to snap into full wakefulness. The man does have an active imagination at times--"the NDP platform started to inject itself into government policy, like a retrovirus rewriting Liberal DNA"--combined with the obligatory conservative insistence on sly sexual innuendo (why "retrovirus?" Oh, right, AIDS, the NDP's position on same-sex marriage, conjuring up images such as this in the conservative hive-mind). But I have to hand it to him: the metaphor is resonant, and has taken possession of my soul.

If the body politic is indeed feeling poorly these days, might I suggest a different etiology and a fundamentally different diagnosis? Indeed, a symbiotic (not parasitic) political relationship did occur under the current Liberal mandate. A symbiote, like a timely dose of L-dopamine, allowed a nearly lifeless brain to think again, without heroic measures being required--this was medical nanotechnology at its best. In return, the symbiote is slowly beginning to acquire the nutrients needed for it to live someday on its own.

But there is a danger here. The "host" that Angry speaks of in fact has parasitical inclinations. We have seen this before, in the Trudeau-Lewis social accord of the early 1970s, when the symbiote disappeared entirely after a short period of usefulness, being absorbed into the very tissues of the host, not by the sneaky means of reverse transcriptase, but more through a process of simple digestion. (Just ask David Orchard what that's like.)

And we mustn't forget the other organic processes taking place--a more holistic view is required, Dr. Angry. Part of the body has been in danger of sloughing off entirely, although improved circulation appears to be containing this threat. But that doesn't appear to be working on the right-hand side, which is still presenting with tremors and occasional ischemic episodes, and is currently suffering from a severe loss of metabolites.

Being an optimist, I believe that the prognosis is good, if the symbiote mentioned earlier can survive a two-fold threat: the inherently perilous nature of the larger organism, and the danger of parasitism from another organism, a green bacterium that requires very little light to thrive. It has the ability to mimic certain beneficial qualities of the symbiote, with the potential of fooling the body into accepting it instead, and, in true parasitical fashion, threatens both the symbiote and itself by its political behaviour.

The symbiote, then, must develop the ability to be recognized by the body as a healthy, life-giving force, and therefore must be permitted to thrive if full health--in fact, a state of well-being that the body has never before achieved--is to be realized. This requires some mutation on its part, however, because, in its present form, it is fragile and overly susceptible both to absorption and excretion.

In conclusion, I am impressed that Angry has ventured into the deep waters of political biology. I would have thought that a model of demonic possession might have been more compatible with his world-view: the image of a staggering, nearly zombie-like body given hellish life by a loa under the direction, perhaps, of a bokor called the See-el-see rather appeals to me. But I don’t want to give him ideas.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Err Canada

Who says the customer is always right? Who seriously believes any more that the consumer drives the market, the way good old laissez-faire capitalism is supposed to function? That the latter is the ultimate form of democracy, where consumer choice amounts to exercising the franchise on a regular basis?

Not Air Canada. They're taking in healthy profits at the moment, $270 million in the last quarter, and they're here to tell us how capitalism really works. Those of us with the temerity to critique the current economic system and its useful idiots in the blogosphere have in Air Canada, if not an ally, at least a helpful case-study.

Consumers, for the most part, are not free individuals exercising their right to choose. We are people who need to eat, stay warm and clothed, and, from time to time, travel. We usually don't have a choice in the matter. And it is precisely that lack of choice that holds us in thrall to the system.

Now, the essential thing about a system is that it works as an organic whole. All of its parts are interconnected. So, for example, "competition," while having a surface reality--Dodge vs. Pontiac, Grey Poupon vs. Maille, Frosty-Os vs. FrootLoops--does not, and cannot, threaten the system itself, which is based upon maximizing profit. The consumer does not, despite the theory, necessarily get a better and better car, mustard or cereal out of all this. Certainly that can be a result of the system, but it's epiphenomenal. What motivates corporations is not a single-minded drive to produce something better, but simply to sell something, in fact, more and more something. To this end, they use massive amounts of advertising, fancy packaging, and creative techniques to grab up market share, the Coke "Classic" campaign being a sterling example of the latter. But they also use, where they can, the very dependency of the consumer against us.

Some instances of this are the fast-food industry, taking advantage of the speed-up and fragmented day of late modern capitalism, and doing its share to supersize the population, with all of its attendant health problems; the windfall profits of the oil industry due to Hurricane Katrina; expensive bottled water, acquiring its market because of legitimate concerns over the safety of tap water; the unconscionable fees that banks levy on everything but admission to their branches (and I hope I’m not giving them ideas); the skyrocketing prices of hydro, oil and gas for a population living in a cold country; and so on.

Back, then, to Air Canada, a player in what is routinely described as a "fiercely competitive" industry (gosh, how many "competitors" are there domestically?), which has now survived higher fuel prices by raising the price of tickets, charging for pillows and blankets, and now abolishing hot meals on long-haul flights, selling you cold inedibles instead at inflated prices.

Part of what Air Canada does to the consumer is a product of simple mismanagement, but they can get away with it because travel for most is a necessity, not a luxury. I used to wonder why they did penny-wise-pound-foolish things like eliminating cheese from the meals, charging for hospitality service drinks, and now charging for pillows, blankets and lousy sandwiches. And eliminating the compassionate discount, because anyone can buy cheap tickets over the web anyhow--those who have computers, that is. The answer? Like the canine who, er, cleans itself, it’s because they can.

Think about it. Tickets cost a fortune: deregulation, which was supposed to bring prices down, eliminated small players and drove ticket prices through the roof, as well as making remote Canadian locations even more remote. It costs more for me to do Ottawa-Toronto return than to get over to Europe. If cheese or pillows were really a problem, why not add two or three bucks to a ticket price? Or ten or twenty bucks to keep the hot meals? Who'd notice?

Indeed, if consumers really mattered in the process, the last place to hit us would be the meals. That's the only high point of a long flight, after sitting for hours on the aerial equivalent of a three-legged stool, breathing everyone else's air and watching some boring general-release movie. We've run the security gauntlet, been sniffed by guards and sometimes even by dogs, ushered down corridors so long sometimes that we’re halfway to our destination, and strapped into place. So what do they do, perhaps out of consistency? Why, mess with the meals. Tired after that? We'll sell you a pillow.

So, you apologists for capitalism, tell me again about choice. What choice? Where's all this choice we're supposed to have? Where do I turn if I want a hot meal on an Ottawa-Vancouver flight? Where are the fierce competitors, lining up to grab my custom? Why aren't the prices dropping like a plane out of fuel?

Capitalism works like a hot-damn, all right. Just not for us. Have a nice flight.