Cyber judgment

  • June 22, 2011

If the hockey riots of Vancouver needed a face an unlikely one was found in 17-year-old Nathan Kotylak.

Kotylak skipped his high-school graduation ceremony in Maple, B.C. so he could turn himself into police and confess that he was the person shown attempting to torch a police car in a widely-distributed photograph. The photo was taken in the aftermath of the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs, when mobs vandalized and looted their way through the streets of downtown Vancouver.

The first reaction to all this is that Kotylak and the rest of the mob are hooligans who should probably be tossed in jail. They terrorized a city and brought shame to the country and should be held to account. In due course, the police and the courts will settle all that.

Meantime, though, we are left to try to understand why this happened. Why did so many young people run with the mob? And how to explain the public response, when the initial shock understandably became anger before taking an inexplicable turn to rage and calls for vengeance.

Kotylak comes across as a typical middle-class teen. The son of a doctor and nationally ranked water polo player, he had accepted a scholarship to attend the University of Calgary in September. He’s not an anarchist or one of those career troublemakers who believe window-smashing should be a national pastime. He’s a teenager who admits to doing something incredibly stupid.

With a crowd watching, he stuffed a rag into the gas tank of a police car and threatened to set the cruiser ablaze. Although he never lit the match Kotylak ignited a firestorm when his photo was transmitted around the world. But almost as shocking as Kotylak’s actions was the response that followed: anger, hatred and threats that became so intense his family felt unsafe in their home.

Many of the same people who denounced the mob mentality that engulfed the streets of Vancouver themselves got swept up in cyber mobs that flooded Internet sites with condemnations and threats. When did Canadians become such an enraged people? It is one thing to become upset when public streets turn violent but quite another to assume the role of cyber judge, jury and hangman as so many did in the aftermath of the riots. Soon after one mob was dispersed from the streets another mob, just as angry, gathered on the Internet. Kotylak used a rag, his critics used a keyboard. It was unruly all round.

To his credit, Kotylak has publicly admitted his mistakes and asked for forgiveness. He makes no excuses for his shameful behaviour and will accept whatever punishment he receives. So give him credit for that.

As far as the cyber mob goes, it remains intact to strike another day.

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