Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rights and Riots

Society is to blame!
All right, we'll arrest them.

Monty Python

As I write this, a 17-year-old elite athlete is grappling with the uncertainty of his career as he waits to confront the consequences of his actions. Charges have been laid, a trial probably awaits, he must begin the lifelong challenge of carrying his guilt for his actions and amid all of this there is probably a great deal of uncertainty about his athletic career as well.

And he gets to do this in the anonymity that is afforded him as a minority.

More recently, another 17-year-old athlete, has found himself weighing similar concerns about his future, but has not been able to do so in the anonymity that we normally grant youth under the laws of our country.

I do not wish to compare the crimes of these youths or suggest that one deserves his anonymity more or less or that one sets a precedence by which the other ought to be treated. The questions of intention, motivation and self-control all need to be carefully weighed in both instances, whether the consequence is one man's contribution to mayhem or the heedless destruction of another person's life. I would much rather ponder the need for reason to be central to the decisions that a society makes and that rights be equal to all, regardless of the emotions that are evoked.

In the case of the young water polo player who participated in the Vancouver riots on June 15, 2011, he became content for the amorphous central nervous system that is our wired world. Social media platforms immediately came into play in documenting the events of the evening and crystallized the rage of those who assert their claim over their Vancouver. Indignant, or in vigilante mode, the social media public saw the evidence of the young man's actions and seized the opportunity to name him and brand him for his crimes. Like it or not, his name is one of a very scant handful of the large numbers who committed crimes during that all-too-familiar routine in the streets.

In the hours and days in the aftermath of the Vancouver riots the police where flooded with tips and evidence implicating people and the Vancouver Police Department was boasting that 6 - yes, 6 - people had turned themselves in. Not exactly the resounding number of arrests that people had hoped for given the extent of the crimes and violence that gripped the streets of downtown Vancouver. In the end, we may only be left with questions about the balance of power between the mobs of the streets and the mobs of the twittersphere. Both groups, whether the rioting looting crowd or the recorders of the event, were motivated by anger or the desire to seize an opportunity to assert their view of what the society ought to be like, with little concern for the consequences.

Nathan Kotylak, the young athlete who is one of the few names to emerge in the aftermath of the riots, was a willing participant and perhaps his actions were premeditated. He waived his right to anonymity but that occurred only after his right was subverted by those who willingly gave his name. He knew he was in a very public place and very public occasion in a YouTube world where everything can be fodder for entertainment or surveillance. In light of this, it could be said that he shed his anonymity as soon as he joined in the mobs. The irony for Mr. Kotylak was that he probably acted the way he did with an anonymous abandon, completely oblivious of the thousands of witnesses and lenses that were within eyeshot of him.

But barely 45 days, earlier on a quiet back road outside of Calgary another man of Mr. Kotylak's generation had a similar lapse in responsibility and it resulted in the death of the young woman in an alcohol-related car crash. His tragedy will be very much a private one and he will be able to retain his right to the anonymity that our laws grant to youth, despite the consequences of his actions. Should he manage to maintain his anonymity, he will be able to, at some point, avoid much of the stigma that his actions would normally accrue.

Both these young men are burdened with profound early failures that make the task of growing into viable adults harder than it already is. They face potential punishment, varying but substantial guilt and uncertainty about who is going to be there for them in the years ahead. While the courts of the crown will be called upon to assess their actions in a rational, fair and evenhanded manner, the court of public opinion - the least reliable of arbiters as a quick visit to the trending topics on Twitter would attest - has been far more powerful and ultimately vindictive.

In his The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera states "living in truth... [is] possible only away from the public." Today, the public grants less and less anonymity everyday and for those who documented the riots in Vancouver, there is ample, solid ground to argue that such anonymity or privacy was rightfully seized and taken from those who were taking much worse from, at the very least, the resilient fabric of their community. There are times, however, when we need to acknowledge that our consciences are the best judges of our indiscretions, failures and crimes and leave it to the consciences and, when need be, the courts of the crown to be those judges.

NOTE: To further muddy the question about rights when actions are recorded in the public sphere is this video of a pre-teen who participated in the Vancouver riots. Fortunately for him, his face was obfuscated to preserve his anonymity.