A bloodied face, a broken nose, concussion, two knocked-out teeth, and sinus problems that may require reconstructive surgery. These were the injuries sustained by Dr. David Dao, a 69-year old Vietnamese doctor after he was beaten and then dragged off a United plane by airport police using all the finesse of 1940s storm troopers. After Dr. Dao somehow managed to reboard the plane, he was again forcibly removed, this time on a stretcher.
The video of the incident “ignited…outrage around the world,” and rightly so. Not surprisingly, much of the subsequent criticism has focused on the brutality of the police, the inadequacy of United’s initial response, and the oppressive profits-over-customers nature of the airline’s policy of overbooking. In short, there was plenty of blame to go around. Fingers pointed at just about everyone except one large contingent of participants: the passengers themselves.
Seems like an “outrageous” thought, doesn’t it? Well, let’s look and see. Like most people, you’ve probably watched one or more of the several videos that were taken by passengers. What’s striking is that seemingly no one at any point attempted to directly confront the police as they beat Dr. Dao and dragged him from the plane. Sure, some passengers shouted things like, “What are you doing?” and “This is wrong,” but no one actually went to the injured man’s aid. No one firmly challenged the police, for example, by insisting, “You can’t do this. It’s unlawful. Stop beating this man. Let him go.”
Think about it: Dr. Dao was not a violent psychopath or terrorist who had to be forcibly removed from the plane for the safety of the other passengers. Yet here he was being first beaten and then dragged down the aisle like a dead carcass in an abattoir. If some brave passenger had jumped up into the aisle to block the police and protest that what they were doing was immoral, that person would likely have had the energetic support of the whole cabin.
What would you have done? What would I have done? I would like to think that I would have protested, but the fact is I’m not sure. And this is a source of shame. To witness a clear case of police brutality and stand idly by points to something badly wrong in our present-day society, something which demands further investigation. The point is not to assign blame, shame, or guilt, but rather, first and foremost, to understand.
The whole incident resembles nothing so much as a socio-cultural Rorschach test, seen differently by different groups of participants. United’s initial response was to indicate there was nothing terribly wrong here. It was all part of standard procedure: a United spokesman noted without a trace of irony that customers wanted to “get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.”
Later, someone must have realized the company had a major public relations disaster on its hands, and the CEO, Oscar Munoz, did a quick about face. Even then, United’s response was half-hearted. It announced it was ending the use of airport police to remove passengers from planes. But it kept in place the widely disliked, and from a business ethics standpoint questionable, practice of overbooking and bumping. United offered all passengers a refund, subtly reinforcing the message already implicit in the policy, namely that it’s all a matter of economics, and more perversely, rewarding the passengers for not getting more involved.
Unquestionably, most of the passengers were confused and frightened. Yet as far as can be gathered from the various videos, they essentially remained spectators, taking pictures and shouting but not physically intervening. We’re in Stanley Milgram territory here. An increasing level of pain is inflicted, but because the policemen are seen as authority figures, the travesty of justice is allowed to continue. It’s been suggested that 9/11 was a turning point, allowing security to become an overriding consideration, especially on airlines. But judging by the videos it was clear that Dr. Dao explained to the police officers he didn’t want to leave the plane because he had patients to see the next day. Obviously he presented no terrorist threat.
In Raoul Peck’s incendiary documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin describes his response to seeing a photo in Paris of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts
being reviled and spat upon by the mob as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, North Carolina…. It made me furious, it filled me with both hatred and pity. And it made me ashamed. Some one of us should have been with her!
There and then he decides to leave Paris and go back to the U.S.:
Everyone else was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.
Baldwin recognized that day that it wasn’t enough to be a protesting witness to injustice. You had to get involved. It’s a lesson we all need to learn.