The justifications and excuses flying about in the wake of the Jessie Sansone affair is a perfect illustration of the bureaucratic mentality I recently discussed in a column about Parkinson’s Law. The 26-year-old Kitchener man was arrested last week after his daughter, 4, drew a picture of a man holding a gun: her daddy, who uses it “to shoot bad guys and monsters.” That precipitated a sequence of events worthy of the golden age of slapstick comedy, if what happened wasn’t the farthest thing from funny. A teacher going to a principal, who in turn involves the police and Family and Children’s Services. The father is arrested at the school when he arrives to pick up his three children. He’s strip-searched and interrogated. Possibly under duress, he agrees to let police search his home. There are, as one might guess, no guns. Well, there is a plastic toy gun, the kind found in millions of households.
Sansone was eventually released and given an apology. Only after going through the traumatic ordeal, however, was he told why he’d been arrested for possession of a firearm: the picture and explanation of a four year old.
Not surprisingly, he’s talking to a lawyer about compensation. Equally unsurprising is the response of all of the agencies involved: we’re just following policy. No one is admitting culpability or responsibility for what was clearly an overreaction of epic proportions. Everyone by now will have been advised by lawyers to maintain the party line: admit nothing, plead innocent.
For the rest of us watching from the outside, Sansone has clearly been wronged. He deserves compensation and, more importantly, we need to replace existing policies with a more common sense approach.
The little girl’s use of the word “monsters” should have been a clear giveaway that no one in the house was running around with a real gun or leaving firearms strewn about the house in reach of the children. The teacher could have easily followed this up by talking to the principal, who in turn could have contacted the parents for an explanation. No fuss necessary. No trampling of anyone’s rights.
Instead, we had the fiasco that unfolded. The Sansone family has undergone a trauma. The institutions involved all have black eyes. And the public is worse off, taking a hit in the wallet and in its freedoms. One thing we can count on is that this is going to cost us a lot of money. It already has if you measure the staff time and expenses racked up in the wrong that was done, from the school itself through the police process. Yet to come are legal bills – everyone will be lawyering up – and costly reviews of existing policies. Then there’s the issue of compensation. Costs could be reduced if the family is offered a settlement rather than dragging it out, but bureaucracies often don’t behave so rationally. Nor are they spending their own money: it’s the taxpayers that are on the hook.
It would be nice to think the costs would be extracted directly from those involved – payroll deductions, perhaps, or commensurate cuts to budgets – but that’s dreaming in colour. The money will come from taxpayers rather than holding anyone accountable.
More pressing, however, is making sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.
In this instance, we have policies that clearly go against the public good: the unreasonable excesses that followed the child’s drawing can’t be defended on any grounds. Those involved had trotted out the “if it saves just one child” argument in defense of what happened, but that doesn’t cut it. That line of reasoning is insidious, glossing over a multitude of sins with what sounds like a rational argument. After all, who’s going to say a child shouldn’t be protected? Well, as Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’s recent arguments in favour of stripping away the rights and privacy of Canadians – siding with the government or with child pornographers – clearly indicates, there’s no stooping too low for those who would take liberties with our, well, liberty.
We can, hopefully, assume all of the officials and bureaucrats involved meant well, but you know what they say about the road to hell? Good intentions don’t excuse what happened. At a minimum, there was a lack of due diligence. It would be an understatement to say drastic measures were taken in the absence of credible evidence. And it wouldn’t be overstating things too much to say the child-safety card being played in defense of those measures should be countered by the words of Thomas Paine (1737-1809): “The greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the name of the noblest causes.” It’s no coincidence that some of the most memorable quotes about rights, freedom and democracy come from a time when they were in much shorter supply. Take, for instance, writer and abolitionist Wendell Phillips’s (1811-1884) reminder that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Today, when we have far more liberties, at least on the surface, we have given up our vigilance. As a result, our freedoms are being eroded. I’m not talking about just the actions of a federal government that has been undermining democracy as its standard operating procedure – from proroguing Parliament and using closure to limit debate, from the G8/G20 fiasco to stealing away your privacy – but about a wider misuse of power by governments and bureaucracies. While what’s coming out of Ottawa these days is malicious, many of the problems stem from rather misguided notions, self-serving tendencies or outright incompetence, fueled by public apathy and the assumption that those “in charge” have both the public’s interests at heart and the ability to do what’s right. History, of course, tells us otherwise. Wising up the fact that things will get worse unless we make them get better – starting with a proper overhaul rather than butt-covering in the Sansone case, for instance – is the first step to protecting ourselves from creeping erosion of our rights.
As James Madison (1751-1836) notes, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedoms of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”