Shocked to death
The world saw a video last week of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers using a Taser against a Polish man in the Vancouver International Airport in October. The man, Robert Dziekanski, died soon after the attack. In recent days, more details have come out about him. It turns out that the 40-year-old didn’t just die after being shocked -- his life was marked by shock as well.
Dziekanski was a young adult in 1989, when Poland began a grand experiment called “shock therapy” for the nation. The promise was that if the communist country accepted a series of brutal economic measures, the reward would be a “normal European country” like France or Germany. The pain would be short, the reward great.
FOR THE RECORD:
Border fences: A Nov. 21 Op-Ed about a Polish immigrant Tasered at a Canadian airport mentioned an electrified fence on Spain’s southern border. There are no such fences there. There are fences at the boundaries of the Spanish territories Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa; however, they are made of razor wire and are not electrified.
So Poland’s government eliminated price controls overnight, slashed subsidies, privatized industries. But for young workers such as Dziekanski, “normal” never arrived. Today, roughly 40% of young Polish workers are unemployed. Dziekanski was among them. He had worked as a typesetter and a miner, but for the last few years, he had been unemployed and had had run-ins with the law.
Like so many Poles of his generation, Dziekanski went looking for work in one of those “normal” countries that Poland was supposed to become but never did. Two million Poles have joined this mass exodus during the last three years alone. Dziekanski’s cohorts have gone to work as bartenders in London, doormen in Dublin, plumbers in France. Last month, he chose to follow his mother to British Columbia, Canada, which is in a pre-Olympics construction boom.
“After seven years of waiting, [Dziekanski] arrived to his utopia, Vancouver,” said the Polish consul general, Maciej Krych. “Ten hours later, he was dead.”
Much of the outrage sparked by the video, which was made by another passenger at the airport, has focused on the controversial use of Tasers, already implicated in 17 deaths in Canada and many more in the United States.
But what happened in Vancouver was about more than a weapon. It was also about an increasingly brutal side of the global economy -- about the reality that many victims of various forms of economic “shock therapy” face at our borders.
Rapid economic transformations like Poland’s have created enormous wealth -- in new investment opportunities; currency trading; in leaner, meaner companies able to comb the globe for the cheapest location to manufacture. But from Mexico to China to Poland, they also have created tens of millions of discarded people, the people who lose their jobs when factories close or lose their land when export zones open.
Understandably, many of these people often choose to move: from countryside to city, from country to country. As Dziekanski appeared to be doing, they go in search of that elusive “normal.”
But there isn’t enough normal to go around, or so we are told. And so, as migrants move, they are often met with other shocks. A treacherous electrified fence on Spain’s southern border, or a Taser gun on the U.S.-Mexican border. Canada, which used to be known around the world for its openness to refugees, is militarizing its borders, with lines between immigrant and terrorist blurring fast.
Dziekanski’s inhuman treatment at the hands of the Canadian police must be seen in this context. The police were called when Dziekanski, lost and disoriented, began shouting in Polish, at one point throwing a chair. Faced with a foreigner like Dziekanski, who spoke no English, why talk when you can shock? It strikes me that the same brutal, short-cut logic guided Poland’s economic transition to capitalism: Why take the gradual route, which required debate and consent, when “shock therapy” promised an instant, if painful, cure?
I realize that I am talking about very different kinds of shocks here, but they do interconnect in a cycle I call “the shock doctrine.” First comes the shock of a national crisis, making countries desperate for any cure and willing to sacrifice democracy in the process. In Poland in 1989, that first shock was the sudden end of communism and the economic meltdown. Then comes the economic shock therapy, the undemocratic process pushed through in the window of crisis that jolts an economy into growth but blasts so many people out of the picture.
Then, in far too many cases, there is the third shock, the one that disciplines and deals with the discarded people: the desperate, the migrants, those driven mad by the system.
Each shock has the potential to kill, some more suddenly than others.
Naomi Klein is the author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.”
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