As societies have become more complex, the balance of power has shifted away from citizens toward governments. Laws and regulations encompassing functions of government are deeply intrusive in requiring information and compliance.

 Agents of government can wield enormous influence over the lives of ordinary people. Yet accountability mechanisms for reducing misuse and disciplining abuse have not kept pace. Public officials exercising routine powers in daily decisions can cause trauma and even death and yet not be held proportionately accountable — or that at least seems to be one of many common lessons from some recent, entirely unconnected events involving Suaad Hagi Mohamud, Robert Dziekanski and Henry Louis Gates (the Harvard professor arrested briefly by police Sgt. James Crowley).

Can we connect the dots between these seemingly disparate cases? Or, to change the metaphor, by focussing discretely on the individual trees of the separate cases, we risk losing sight of the forest of encroaching powers of government agents to the detriment of citizens’ rights and liberties. The cases have been newsworthy separately. Their implications are even more serious when considered collectively.

Examining them together (and others farther abroad, for example from Britain and Australia), it is clear that reasonable people can interpret the same event differently and draw contradictory conclusions. It is possible for both sides in a disputed confrontation to be right. Crowley was responding to a concerned citizen calling the police about a suspected break-in. Accosted by a police officer demanding proof of identity, Gates was understandably aggrieved at having to bow to white authority in his own home. Similarly, given the reality of passport frauds, the consular official seems to have made an honest if mistaken judgment call, while Mohamud appears to have done absolutely everything right. In the case of Dziekanski while he was disoriented and disruptive, he posed no threat, and the responding RCMP officers clearly acted wrongly.

It is possible also for both parties to be wrong. Gates hurled charges of racial bias without evidence, seeing racial slights where none existed. Crowley was wrong to arrest Gates. Disrespecting the police is not “disorderly conduct” warranting being cuffed and arrested. There is no such crime as contempt of cop.

All three cases show the enormous gap between the consequences to individual human beings of ordinary decisions made by public officials, the casualness with which some of these decisions can be made, and the lack of accountability mechanisms that would bring the consequences to officials in line with the harm done to their victims.

Gates was urged by some to sue the police, not as an act of personal greed or vengeance but of civic virtue, to highlight, through a high-profile case, the daily misuse of police powers against vulnerable individuals. The two principals have shaken hands and moved on. Alas, inviting the two sides to share a beer on a lazy afternoon on the lawns of the White House is not a realistic option for resolving all disputes.

In that incident, no great and lasting harm was done. The same is not true of the Dziekanski and Mohamud cases (and others like Maher Arar).

Governments now exercise control over our lives to a frightening degree. But “government” is not a single actor. Rather, it comprises many different institutions and individuals. It has grown so vast and complex cabinet ministers can no longer reasonably be expected to be aware of all that is done by officials in their department. It would not be fair to require resignation by the immigration or foreign minister in the Mohamud case for one wrong clerical judgment call. (The Dziekanski case is a different matter. The cover-up and lies seem to have become so instinctive and habitual in the force that responsibility for this state of affairs must extend up the chain of command.)

Police officers have to make instant decisions on whether or not to arrest difficult and resisting suspects. But being handcuffed is not a daily and routine experience to the victims; it can be traumatic for some. Being tasered has proven to be deadly for many.

And with the dire consequences being predictable, how could the consular official determine Mohamud’s identity on the inherently subjective basis of her likeness to her passport photo? How could superiors ignore her desperate pleas for cross-verification on more reliable evidence?

The consular official who handled the Mohamud case, Liliane Khadour, is now back in Ottawa, although it is not clear whether she completed a normal tour of duty or has been recalled. Will justice be seen to be done if no further action is taken to redress the wrongs? It seems unfair to require taxpayers to fund the compensations that may be awarded to the victims. In the case of Mohamud, though, it is hard to see how even dismissing the consular official would be fair and proportionate to the severity and duration of suffering inflicted on her, should that official be found in dereliction of her duties.

On the other hand, society would not benefit if public officials were reduced to risk-averse Hamlet-like indecisiveness, petrified of being dismissed or imprisoned for making wrong decisions in good faith. Thus we do not necessarily have the answers.

But we seem to have avoided having to confront these difficult issues for much too long. The problem is especially acute for international travellers, whose rights — in between the legal jurisdictions of home country before leaving and of host country after entering — would appear to be fewer and less enforceable than those of convicted prisoners. Training, oversight and accountability must be overhauled to realign the balance, between citizens going about their lawful business — including international travel — and public servants discharging their legitimate duties, to modern reality. The most frightening element of most of these kinds of stories is how easily we could have been the victim.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.