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Evil and our need to know

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment

The unthinkable crimes of Col. Russell Williams are now on the public record. Many people are asking why the media must cover them in such graphic detail.

Canada has never seen such public disclosure — in photos, videotapes and the written record — as in this case. It follows on the guilty pleas entered by Col. Williams, the former commander of Canadian Forces Base at Trenton, Ontario, to the murder of two women, the rape of two others, and almost eighty break-ins from which he took hundreds of items of women’s underclothes.

It is right and necessary that the evidence of this evil man’s crimes shall be put into the public realm.

The reason is that our courts must be open at all times and in all ways. The media must have unfettered access to their proceedings.  It’s the only way we have to ensure the fairness and equity of the justice system.

Under Canadian law and custom, anyone accused of a crime must be brought promptly into an open court, to be publicly identified by name, with the public able to hear and see the evidence against them.

In countries lacking this protection, people can and do disappear from their homes and the streets never to be heard of again. We mustn’t be so naive as to think this could never happen here.

This does not excuse media excess. By and large, Canadian newspapers have handled the Williams case with restraint. The Globe and Mail’s simple one-paragraph page 1 item today was all we needed to know where we could find the full story if we wanted  it.

The Sun papers went their usual sleazy route. The Toronto Star, sadly, chose to fill a large part of its front page with a sick headline:

“If I die, will you make sure my Mom knows I love her?”

Headlines like this simply encourage a descent into blood lust. Our hearts go out to the friends and relatives of the victims who have testified in court. They have courageously thrown this evil man’s abominable acts back into his face.

So should the death penalty be restored?

No. Not to save Williams, but to protect other, potentially innocent accused, who might be brought before the courts.

Quite a few men — and some women — who were convicted of murder in Canada over the past 20 or 30 years have later been found innocent. In the years that Canada had capital punishment, many innocent people were hanged. I’m writing about these injustices in my article, Reasonable Doubt, which will be in the December issue of Canada’s History.

In the case of Russell Williams, police have conducted themselves brilliantly and with great care. They collected solid evidence — tire marks and footprints unique to Williams — before questioning him. A skillful 10 1/2 hour interview brought full confession to his horrendous crimes.

The court has acted wisely in permitting public disclosure of the evidence. This information must be in the public realm for two reasons.

First, to fully inform the presiding judge of the case against Williams. He needs this in determining the sentence he will impose — likely life imprisonment, with no parole hearing for 25 years. (You can be sure he will never be paroled.)

Second, as the police have stated, to inform any future parole hearing of the horrendous nature of Williams’ crimes.

This is the time to renew my argument against publication bans in general. They’re dangerous, under the best of circumstances. Only by full disclosure can fair and impartial justice be assured.

The freedom to publish what is happening in our courts in no privilege conferred on the news media. Rather, it is our essential safeguard against an unjust judicial system.

As our surrogates, the media fulfill the role the individual was able to play in simpler times. Not that the media must publish everything said or shown in court! But it must be out there — in the public realm — and available for examination if the need arises.

To those who wish not to be confronted by the awful evidence of evil behavior, my answer is that it is our duty as mature citizens to accept to know what is happening in our midst.

Only then can we take steps to try to protect or improve our society.

Chile Rescue: A Canadian parallel

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

The marvellous rescue of the 33 Chilean miners — watched by millions around the world — brings to mind a Canadian underground rescue operation that also was a media sensation in its time.

On Easter Sunday, April 12, 1936, three men went down into the decrepit Moose River Gold Mine in Nova Scotia. Two of the trio were the mine’s owners who were on an inspection trip prior to putting this albatross up for sale.

The tunnels, weakened by the extraction of gold from the rock pillars that supported them, were cluttered with splintered timbers and fallen rock as the men picked their way underground. Water gurgled menacingly. The noise of creaking timbers alerted the men to an imminent collapse.

What made the Moose River mine disaster famous was not so much the 10-day effort to retrieve the men, but the fact that news of the search was broadcast throughout North America via the infant communications medium of radio.

J. Frank Willis, the 28-year-old regional director for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (predecessor to the CBC) hurried to the scene, along with dozens of newspaper men.

Over a 56-hour stretch, from Monday, April 20 to the end of the drama just after midnight on April 23, Willis broadcast live reports for two minutes every half hour. He was on the air for 56 hours straight. Radio stations all over North America picked up his accounts, delivering an audience of 100 million listeners.

In Willis’ final report, he told unbelieving listeners, “I can hear the men working, breaking through the rocks.” Then came these heart-stopping words: “They have been saved. They are out of the mine. That is all. This is the Canadian Radio Commission.”

A probe had been forced down to the 43-metre level where the three men had been trapped by a cave-in. A garden hose was shoved down, and for five days it carried candles, matches, brandy and hot soup to the trapped men. Sadly, only two were still alive when diggers got to them. One had succumbed to pneumonia.

As far as I know, the only book about the incident is It Happened at Moose River, by David Stephens (Lancelot Press, 1974).

It’s understandable that the sales of this book never matched that of Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (Avon, 1975) by the British author, Piers Paul Read. This gripping account of the survival of 16 of the 45 people caught in the Andes plane crash of a Uruguayan rugby team also was made into a movie.

You can bet that the race to publish the first book about the ordeal of the San Jose copper miners is already underway. It’s reported that the miners have agreed to collaborate on their own book. They kept a common journal during the 69 days they were locked underground.

The English-language  Santiago Times has an interesting on-scene account of the rescue of the Chilean miners.

Many thoughts went through my mind in watching the last hours of the rescue:

  • How must the last man out have felt while he waited alone for the final trip of the Fenix capsule?
  • What a triumph of ordinary mechanics that rescue was. It looked like a giant Meccano set. Not a computer chip in the whole system!
  • How did the men manage to contain the inevitable rivalries and jealousies that would have been present during those long days and nights underground?
  • And how many will find their lives in turmoil and distress as they endure the inevitable pressures of fame in the months and years to come?

In the Moose River disaster, the two survivors went on to live normal lives — David Robertson, an investor in the mine who was the chief of staff at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, and David Robertson, who had worked as the timekeeper at Moose River. The second owner, Toronto lawyer Herman Magill, died underground.

“The Boy” makes the Globe

October 11, 2010 2 comments

My thanks to Neil Reynolds of The Globe and Mail for a warm and friendly column on my book, “The Boy in the Picture.”

Neil’s piece takes up almost half of today’s Opp Ed page with a reprint of the famous Last Spike photo and a favorable review.

I especially liked this part:

” …inspiring tale …  Argyle tells this Boy’s Own tale superbly…”

(See, that’s how publishers pick out cover blurbs.)

You can read it here.