Having to phone your room mate to tell him you set fire to the apartment is a really crappy feeling.
I was staying with Mike in Chicago for three weeks for classes, and he was going to bring a bunch of people back for a meal. I had just thrown some things in the oven and there was just enough time (45 minutes or so) for them to bake before people got there. I knew I needed to run to the store which was just a few blocks away, but I also knew better than to leave the apartment with stuff in the oven.
Sometimes, you know better but you don’t exactly do better.
Rushing back with my last minute groceries, all I could think was "I-set-the-apartment-on-fire-I-set-the-apartment-on-fire-I-set-the-apartment-on-fire".
I thought this as I saw a fire truck pass me, and turn down our street.
I thought this as I turned the corner, and saw smoke pouring from a wall of our building.
I thought this as I saw the flashing lights of the fire truck stopped at our front door.
I thought this as I saw the crowd of evacuated people huddled outside the building.
I pulled out my phone and dialled Mike with shaking fingers. I held the bouncing phone to my ear as I raced down the street towards home. (In the few times I have observed a fire, this has always been my instinct... to get into the burning building as quickly as possible and… I don’t know. Help out the firemen who clearly wouldn’t know what to do without my assistance?).
Mike answered the call just as several new facts registered:
The smoke pouring out of the side of the building smelled strongly of fabric softener. Also, it was coming out of a vent.
The flashing lights of the fire truck were orange, not blue and red. Also—and this is key—they were not attached to a fire truck.
The crowd of evacuees were all wearing coats and backpacks… and as Mike asked me why I was calling, a bus pulled up and everyone began boarding it.
So, I explained to a confused Mike that there was no problem, and I didn’t set fire to the apartment or anything. Then I panted into the mouthpiece for a bit, and told him I'd see him later.
I thought of this story this week, when I read the story of Constable Ken Lam. Lam is “the cop who didn’t shoot” in the apprehension of Alek Minnasian, accused of killing ten people in a van rampage this week. Lam caught up with the suspect and faced him on the Toronto sidewalk, sirens blaring. Minnasian stood holding something out in front of him like a gun, declaring he was armed. Minnasian also reached quickly into his pocket several times, making a gun-pulling-out motion.
Instead of shooting, Lam kept de-escalating the situation. He turned off his siren so he could hear the Minnasian better, and kept talking to him. He made subtle observations that then led him to holster his gun before making the arrest. He was a poster child for using only the necessary force.
The part I love most in the video is the when three pedestrians literally wander along the sidewalk behind the suspect. They aren’t coming over to have a look, they just happen to be passing by. As they stroll, they take in the scene, and keep wandering until they are around the corner. They do not drop to the ground. They don’t even seem visibly agitated, except the guy in the white jacket, who jogs a little towards the end of the shot.
These pedestrians embody something I’ve observed in moving between the US and Canada…. Canadians are listening to a different soundtrack.
Just like I had a soundtrack of the-apartment-might-be-on-fire playing through my head as I misperceived the situation in Chicago, people can have all kinds of soundtracks running through their minds... particularly when they are in fear. And Canadians—generally—are not primed to think they are about to be shot.
The point of the soundtrack metaphor is not to absolve people of their actions. The cop who does shoot an unarmed suspect, or the rural farmer who points a gun at the head of the guy with the flat tire, or the ER nurse who triages based on prejudice… these people cannot call “soundtrack” to absolve themselves of responsibility.
Because we each have a great deal of control over our soundtracks.
We choose what we pay attention to, and what stories or types of stories we read over and over again. We can choose to notice when we are succumbing to the temptation to buy into a narrative of bad-guys-waiting-to-get-us. We can think critically, and use our common sense to notice when we’re encouraged to think a whole group of people is evil or wholly misguided.
We can notice when the wailing siren is making it hard for us to hear or even think, and we can turn the siren off. We can listen. Observe. Look for other information and counter-narratives. We can get to know people from a group that we don’t know well... either directly or via reading and watching and learning from the stories that they tell.
We can choose that as a society, too. When the same tragedies appear over and over again, we can ask what soundtracks we’re providing that are creating the perfect storm for these events. We do not have to throw up our hands and bemoan the fact that the world is filled with evil people who do bad things. We have a great deal of influence on the soundtracks that contribute to those things.
This may be the perfect time to think context—both personally and as a country.
Constable Lam didn’t shoot. Instead, he turned off the siren so he could hear better.
We should all be so wise.