There has been no shortage of opinions on the violent removal of Dr. David Dao from the overbooked United Flight 3411. Should Dao have given up his seat? Does an airline have the right to bump a passenger to another flight even after he paid for his ticket? Should airlines change their policies on overbooking?
To me, the biggest mistake that was made in this situation is not contained in any of the questions asked above. The ultimate downfall of the situation—a situation that resulted in someone getting his face bloodied after it was smashed into an armrest—was when the United staff called the police.
But aren’t the police supposed to be the people who keep order? Why wouldn’t you want to get the police involved when someone refuses to submit to instructions and holds everyone else up?
Even if we were to hold that United was completely in the right to bump Dao from his seat and Dao was completely wrong to refuse to comply, the situation did not call for an escalation to violence. Dao was absolutely no threat to anyone on the airplane even if someone were to accuse him of being unreasonable or a jerk or a baby. Call him whatever you want except for dangerous.
But these details typically don’t matter to the police. Or at least they tend to matter very little. In minds of the police, they are the source of “lawful orders,” so compliance is mandatory. You don’t want to comply? Well, then the police have the force of the law to back them up.
In other words, the police think that whatever they say is the law, so if you don’t do what they say, you’re breaking the law. If you’re breaking the law, they get to arrest you, i.e. use force.
It’s a warped sense of justice and it’s the unfortunate reality in which we live.
Dao thought that he was doing nothing wrong. When the police were called, what was an annoying and frustrating situation turned into the perfect recipe for violence.
So why would the situation have turned out any differently if the police had not been called? Private citizens tend to not believe that they have the right to lay a hand on someone unless it is defensive. If Dao had been physically assaulting a woman sitting next to him and a man in the row in front of him clocked him with a right cross to bloody his face, I’m not sure that many people would have much sympathy for Dr. Dao. But we’re talking about laying hands on a man who is just sitting there. Most people would not feel comfortable dragging him out of the plane just for that.
Am I saying that United Flight 3411 would still be sitting at the gate at an impasse had the police not been called? I don’t think so. United has a business to run and everyone else on the plane had places to go. But maybe some people didn’t need to be somewhere as badly as others. Maybe someone else, getting annoyed that an entire airplane was being held up because of one person, would have volunteered to take his place and taken the $800. Or maybe United would sweeten the deal to entice either Dao or someone else to agree to be bumped.
It was an ugly situation and I’m not claiming that a non-violent outcome would have resulted every single time had the police not been called. What I am saying is that the chances someone leaves the plane with a bloody face would be much lower if United and the passengers worked the problem out by themselves.
Unless you want and need violence to solve your problem, don’t call the police.