Saturday, May 23, 2015

Human Rights in North America: Having too many and not enough

Ship stranded on sand
One evening after a few beers (I only had two or three), my German friend and I were on our way back to our respective abodes when out of nowhere we stumbled upon a man lying in the middle of the pavement. His eyes were open and my immediate thought was that he must have been drunk, or rather, beyond drunk.

My second reaction was to walk past him and not get involved. One of my maxims in life is the philosophy of non-interference. Unlike many others, I do not like to play police and at the same time I do not wish to interfere with other people's business, that is, as long as I do not see it as necessary to intervene in that particular situation. By necessary I mean where my non-interference or lack of action might cause significant additional harm to the person involved, and it does not put myself or a loved one in danger.

In other words, if I see somebody being attacked, I would most definitely not get involved unless somebody I know was mixed up in it. Even then it would become hazy: How close is my relationship to that person and how grave was the danger etc. The only time I would mindlessly or instinctively jump into the fray would be if a close family member was involved, for example, my son or my wife.

Contrary to my hesitance, my German friend, who had had about the same, if not slightly more, drinks to his name, usually tends to interfere in almost all types of situations. So he asked this man who had his belly visibly protruding from under his T-shirt, why he was lying there on the pavement. It was then we also noticed a couple of (unopened but clearly dent) cans scattered around his immobile body.

This man explained in somewhat blurry words that he had been punched by somebody very hard in the face and that, as a result, he found himself on the ground. This was worrisome. My friend wondered if the man knew the assailant; to this our guy claimed that it had happened on a very random basis.

Notwithstanding this situation (which probably was not true as we could not make out visible bruises on the face of the self-proclaimed victim), my friend told him that this was no good reason to continue lying in such a way on the pavement, and he asked him, where he lived. The stranger told us his apartment was merely a couple of blocks from where we found ourselves and that his girl-friend was supposedly waiting for him.

My friend asked him if he could walk, and the man told us he was not sure. He would get dizzy when he gets up, he confided. So my friend decided to hail him a cab, but first helped him up. Our guy seemed a bit shaky on his legs, as predicted by himself, and so we quickly turned to scout for a taxi. And then we heard a boom, and turned around in fear.

Our guy had indeed lost his balance falling uncontrollably backwards; to our horror in his fall his head hit the side of the pavement, while his body was spread on the side of the street amid oncoming traffic. This is when I felt seriously worried and suggested to my friend to call for an ambulance.

In the meantime, an Irish couple from the other side of the street had seen the fall and ran over to help us out. With the sudden appearance of another couple of curious but helpful guys, we managed to gently pull this man onto the pavement again, while one of the guys was redirecting traffic all the while. It was still not too dark at the time.

The hospital was about two and a half blocks from the scene of the incident, so we were positive they would arrive soon. Thank goodness our guy was conscious and breathing and could still communicate with us. Suddenly, a car stopped and a young man approached and started to bend over this man asking him questions.

I was impressed with the outpouring support and aid in this situation, but found it strange why this young man was asking our guy all those questions. One of the other bystanders asked him if he was a doctor, and he affirmed. He had pulled over when he saw the man and was examining him. By the looks of it, our guy despite his two falls seemed to be coherent enough.

He told us again about his girlfriend, so we collectively decided to give her a call. Our guy could not remember her or rather his own home phone number, but we managed to find her on the contact list, and the doctor talked to her explaining the situation, while my German friend was explaining the 911 operators the situation, and I was telling other questioning passersby what was happening here.

The Irish couple had also witnessed the fall, and we all agreed that paramedics ought to be able to help him and take him to the hospital for a check-up. We had to wait longer than anticipated, especially considering the lack of distance between our place and the hospital, a mere two blocks, until the ambulance finally appeared with flashing sirens, and we waved them frantically in our direction.

To our surprise, we encountered two young women. The doctor told our guy on the ground that there were two young women ready to take care of him now and decided that his presence was not needed any more. He, however, first shared with the two female paramedics his findings as a doctor and then dismissed himself. We thanked him collectively and greatly appreciated his help and input.

The paramedics started asking our guy questions and checked the back of his head with a special light. It was bleeding. One of the paramedics asked our guy if he wanted to go to the hospital, but he said no. We said that we considered it a better option for them to take him there for a quick check-up, as the fall, at least the second one we had witnessed, did not look good at all.

And then to our shock the other paramedic told us that they could not do that. It was against the law to take someone to the hospital against their will. It seemed like a bad joke, except that it was neither funny nor a joke. Their powers in this situation were limited and their hands bound. But he is in a confused state; he is not in his right mind to decide what would be the best thing to do, and he should be taken to the hospital for precautionary observation and care.

No use. There was nothing anybody could do in this situation, and it all depended on his shaky shoulders. Did we know him? No, we had found him in this state here. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, a group of Asians, who seemed language students, walked by and recognized him, and he recognized them, and the paramedics asked whether they could take charge of him.

They said yes and that they could drive him home in their car. Did they have drinks that night, and the Asians said no, and before we knew it, they were taking him to their car. We decided that our presence was futile and that we had done our duty, or at least my friend had, while I had been assisting him in my own manner. This whole event had taken about half an hour in total.

As we walked back home, we found that the Irish couple had the same path, so we could not help marveling about the event together. They claimed that in their country a person who had sustained a potentially serious injury would be taken to the hospital, regardless of their own views on the matter. They would be then released the next day if everything turned out to be fine.

To me, this seemed also the best and most logical way of doing things. For example, if a person has a stroke or a heart attack in public, but does not want to go to hospital, simply because they feel they are fine or they think they are all right or they are suffering from confusion, then paramedics should be given the right to override the patient's wishes and take them to the hospital in the best interest of the person.

Sure, there could be potential abuses or perhaps misunderstandings, but I would rather err on the side of caution. Whatever happened to our guy, I do not dare to ask. What if he did not even make it to the next day? All because of a clause protecting one's human rights at the expense of one's life. The right to life and treatment should override all the other petty issues.

What is the procedure when somebody gets stabbed or shot? If they choose not to be taken away, do the paramedics also obey? In our case, they had witnesses and the man was bleeding at the back of his head. Did he need to be unconscious for them to treat him or would they wait until he wakes up so he can give them the thumbs up that he is OK and then walk back home? Incidentally, the paramedics said that all they could do was ask for a police car to give this man a ride back home. I see little use in that except the assurance that he got home all right. But what happens after that?

So I ask myself, are we taking our human rights too far? The question is evidently rhetorical in nature. In a country where you can choose to have children not vaccinated because of your personal beliefs (hence endangering not only your children's lives but also other children around you) we have seen more than the usual number of outbreaks in especially richer neighborhoods.

This is not because of a lack of knowledge or availability, but because we may have too much of either. More importantly, our government is tiptoeing around the so-called private citizen rights of the individual. There is also the recent issue, at least in Canada, whether women are allowed to wear the niqab not only in public but also in governmental institutions and during citizenship oaths.

Now I do not want to enter into this particularly sensitive domain, nor mean to tread on anybody's toes, and far be it from me to give right to the conservative right in our country, but it seems odd that there are most likely millions of women who feel forced and who under the threat of penalty of law and severe punishment must be wearing those garments, only to find people who insist on them in a country that gives them the freedom to wear what they please.

We have gotten so entrenched in the human rights of individuals that we do not see when they are taken away from us, like the controversial anti-terrorism bill or other laws supposedly meant to make us safer but which end up restricting us in our movements. For example, our scientists have been restricted in their research and are not allowed to voice their opinions in a free and democratic manner. And in times of war, criticizing the efforts or the allies has been often interpreted as anti-patriotic or treasonous.

I wonder why this emphasis on individual rights is so pronounced in North America and not so in Europe, which has endured major wars and catastrophes in its wake and history. My only possible answer is that North America is the place where immigrants sought freedom from ideological restraints and religious persecutions. Those who settled here wanted to have a fresh new start in which rights would be enshrined in a new and shiny constitution, in which everyone would be deemed equal.

In that sense, in terms of liberty and freedom, North America was miles ahead of its mainland counterparts. However, that did not stop its people from engaging in slavery and horrible atrocities to its African citizens in the US, nor its illegal camps of Japanese people or its unfair and illegal treatment, via head taxes and other means, of its Chinese residents in Canada. It seems that rights are accepted but only of a limited part of the populace. Hence, in theory people are equal but in practice there are significant shades of differences there.

This is worrisome. Too many rights have convoluted us and have taken away our sight. We cannot see the essential, or as they say, we cannot make out the forest for the trees. It is great to have rights, but we also need to respect those of others. At the same time, laws should be also based on common sense and on the particularities of the situation.This would make, in my view, the right to own guns in this day and age both dangerous and counterproductive.

Our guy should have, under the circumstances, had his rights waived for his own best interest and safety. And we need to ensure that people's rights are respected, but at the same time, make sure that we are not handing them over to the government, nor do we want to be abusing the many benefits freedom and democracy bestow upon us. At least, all of this would be of importance if we are indeed and truly living in a state of freedom and democracy. But some things are, as they say, better left unsaid.

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