Viral Shock and Spectacle in the Policing of Borders: The Youtube Taser Death of Robert Dziekanski

Curator's Note

It may seem something of a strange choice to write an In Media Res commentary on a Youtube video that I personally find difficult to watch. But the widespread viral circulation of this video of Canadian RCMP police tasering and ultimately killing Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport on October 14, 2007 is tied to the very elements that make it disturbing viewing, for better and for worse.

Arriving from Poland as a new immigrant to Canada for the first time, Dziekanski got lost behind the customs line, confused and unable to make his way to meet his waiting mother due in part to what many allege to be negligence on the part of border staff with regards to the fact he did not speak English (more details of the case can be found here and here).  

Filmed by a bystander on a digital camera, the video was immediately confiscated by the RCMP, soon becoming subject to a legal battle. Posted on Youtube within three minutes of being made public in November 2007, its release and rapid viral circulation (over 15 million views) sparked an international outcry, particularly as the video clearly contradicted the RCMP's stated version of events to that point. In the aftermath of the controversy, the ongoing Braidwood inquiry was convened to investigate the circumstances surrounding Dziekanski’s death and questions of police taser use.

To be sure, the taser death of Robert Dziekanski has provoked debate about many issues: from the highly questionable role played by the private corporation Taser International and their attribution of a controversial condition called “excited delirium” as the cause of the approximately 300 taser-related deaths that have occurred in North America; to the disproportionate use of tasers on racialized communites; to the connections Naomi Klein has pointed out between the economic shock therapy imposed on peripheral economies such as Poland in the 1990s, the mass migration of unemployed workers from such regions (as was Dziekanski), and the use of electroshock “pain compliance” weapons such as tasers in global policing. Oh, and check out the latest generation of “wireless” tasers, ones that shock from distances of up to 30 metres, as well as a compact pink taser being marketed to the ladies.

The rapid viral circulation and the international attention the video has generated also raises particular issues regarding its mobilization as a form of digital “witnessing” of abusive state power towards migrants. This raises questions about the enabling political effects of such instances of viral citizen’s video in challenging border policing practices and the invisibility of repressive state practices towards migrants and racialized peoples. On the other hand complicated questions simultaneously arise regarding the role that shock value, voyeurism, and the spectacle of migrant deaths play in generating media coverage and political impacts in the (short) attention economy of contemporary politics and media, whether it be in viral or more traditional broadcast news formats (or as in this case, in the interplay between the two).

How much of what made the Dziekanski video an international “hit” on Youtube and news broadcasts is a matter of the power of independent citizen journalism and what Steve Mann calls souveillance? And how much is it about the titillation factor – as evidenced by the youtube “parody” video, various humour websites devoted to videos of people being tasered, or the declaration made while the video was being shot about it being “hot footage for my home videos” – in a culture where media coverage of wider state, military, and increasingly corporate uses of torture techniques verge on spectacle and entertainment.

I am inclined to say that it seems to be both at once, and this is what makes it a particularly ambivalent, vexed issue. This is not to adopt a moralistic stance or simple puritanical condemnation of some of the more salacious impulses fuelling the circulation of viral media in favor of a more “objective, “rational” digital public sphere. Rather, I wonder about the ways in which the sensational value and circulation of such a video may play into and reinforce (or not) the political recuperation and containment of such media events in favor of repressive policing and border regimes.

The RCMP officers involved in the death of Dziekanski were exonerated of criminal charges by the British Columbian government last December. The second phase of the Braidwood Inquiry is currently under way, and much damning evidence has been brought forward in recent weeks. The extent to which the case of Robert Dziekanski will be reduced or contained to technical issues of police taser use versus addressing more challenging, systemic questions regarding who is being targeted, who is turning a profit, and how the singular tragedy of Robert Dziekanski ties into wider injustices in migration and policing regimes remains to be seen.


Your analysis of spectacle torture brought to mind Susan Sontag’s claim that the “freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.” Stunning to think that Sontag made this claim decades before the wide popularization of camera-enabled cellphones, digital cameras, or YouTube.


There is a disturbing intertextuality emerging out the many viral videos and “parody” videos now in circulation as well as news stories, as you mention. I would add popular movies to this growing intertextuality. Your commentary brought to mind, The Terminal (2004) starring Tom Hanks. It's likely that the film was mentioned (in a lighthearted manner) in some newsstories about Dziekanski's death. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll recall that it’s about an Eastern European immigrant who gets stranded in an American airport because of political turmoil in his home country. He makes a temporary home in the airport, finds friends, falls in love, and causes frustration and trouble for airport security before finding a way out. Despite that the film is a comedy, it’s possible to read it as yet another media event in favor of repressive policing and border regimes. Thanks for your fascinating and sad commentary on how the conflation of gaze and gun contributed to Dziekanski’s death and the death of many others.


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