Some of the most startling pieces of viral video ever circulated in the recent past have to be those that captured the moment 69-year-old physician David Dao was wrestled from his seat on United Flight 4311, bloodied and dragged off the plane.

It triggered several important discussions about aviation law and passenger rights. For example, how many of us really knew that we could be refused service for a flight we paid for? Even after we’ve taken our seats?

Also, the moral question: What rights do law enforcement or security officers have to use force to see that that people comply with regulations like these? Is a citizen’s only option to comply or be beaten?

Most opinions I’ve read over the last week since the April 10 incident have largely taken the stand that what United did to Dao was just plain wrong. No matter the circumstances, there should be no place in civilized society for the use of force against a noncompliant, but nonviolent, citizen.

The practice of overbooking and forcibly removing paying customers is also not getting a favorable shake in the court of public opinion. And today, I bet United CEO Oscar Munoz would gladly have preferred to pay Dao, or anyone else on flight 4311, $1 million just to make the bad publicity go away.

More interesting, however, than the immediate debate over forcing Dao off the plane is the role of other citizens.

In multiple videos of the incident – all captured on smartphone cameras by other passengers on the plane – several people can be seen and heard protesting the airline’s treatment of Dao. But only a little bit. Some observers have remarked that the rest of the plane’s passengers are shockingly indifferent to Dao’s plight.

It’s hard to put yourself in the same position. And though I hate to admit it, I probably wouldn’t have done much more than try to calm the security guards down or asked them to please not use force. What else can one do? Today, it’s not wise to do anything to distinguish yourself on a plane where there is little room for leniency or interpretation. Do something disruptive and you might find yourself in an airport holding cell when all you were hoping for was a trip to the Outer Banks.

Instead, we have a nation of videographers, ready to capture any injustice at the push of a virtual button. And perhaps, as we have seen in the case of Dao and scores of other incidents, capturing images of these situations is the best thing a citizen can do. It is, if nothing else, a powerful way to hold those in power accountable.

On one hand, it is spooky to watch Dao dragged from the plane and to see most of his fellow passengers simply holding up their smartphones to capture the moment. But there is perhaps more power in that simple act than it looks. For governments, corporations and any other entities exercising power, they must do so now certain that they are acting under full public scrutiny. If that thought had occurred to security officers who dragged Dao off the plane beforehand, it wouldn’t have happened in the first place. And now that it has, it likely won’t happen again.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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