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Judith Timson

Michael Bryant: The story none of us can stop talking about Add to ...

It is the story that none of us can stop talking about.

The horrific Michael Bryant case, in which the former Ontario attorney-general has been charged in the death of a bicycle courier in Toronto, has been tidily summed up just about everywhere as our own Bonfire of the Vanities . It's an apt comparison, because beneath the facts lies a bubbling cauldron of social resentments, mistrust of authority and other prejudices that may well tell us more about ourselves than about anything else.

Here are those facts: Mr. Bryant, 43, Ontario's former attorney-general and a political golden boy, has been charged with criminal negligence causing death, and dangerous driving following the death of Darcy Allan Sheppard, 33, a bicycle courier with whom he had an altercation Monday evening along a tony stretch of Toronto's Bloor Street. Mr. Sheppard was seen clinging to Mr. Bryant's car and eventually died after he fell off.

It's been fascinating in this very urban tale of privilege, character, rage and tragedy to see how, like a fast-moving bowling game, certain pins have quickly been set up and just as quickly knocked down.

First, Mr. Sheppard, the bicycle courier was seen to be a wonderful funny guy, a merry warrior in the often intense subculture of bicycle couriers, a father about to get his life in order. Then he was a drunk with an alleged criminal past and "a history of violence" according to one report published in the Edmonton Sun. He had already been in the back of a police cruiser that night as cops tried to figure out what to do with him. Even though his girlfriend told the media Mr. Sheppard had been too drunk to operate his bike, the police sent him on his way.

And first Mr. Bryant, Harvard educated, recently appointed to a prestigious economic post in Toronto, was, in his sleek black Saab convertible with his accomplished wife, entertainment lawyer Susan Abramovitch at his side, viewed as the very epitome of the luxe life. The couple, celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary, surely must have been coming from some glitzy Yorkville boîte, replete with fine food and a side order of entitlement.

But according to a Toronto Star interview with "a source close to the family," the couple had instead eaten at a modest College Street shawarma joint (the bill apparently totalled $15), then walked on the beach and finally finished up at a Greek pastry shop on the Danforth, sitting in a café, talking as the late summer night cooled. A modest date that most of us could afford. One that incomprehensibly led to Mr. Sheppard being dragged by Mr. Bryant's car as it swerved into the wrong lane. After that it would be Mr. Bryant's turn to sit in the back of a police cruiser.

These images are confusing. They may well even be irrelevant. They certainly don't conform to the rich or poor, black or white, good or bad, powerful or victimized lens through which most of us are inclined to view this tragedy.

At first people wanted to talk about the dangerous and hostile relationship between cyclists and drivers. If you were a cyclist, your initial reaction was to side with the downed bicycle courier. Not so much if you were a motorist weary of cyclers' wrath.

Then the talk turned to moral judgment. "What a story" breathed one woman I met on the street. "I see he's already hired a spin doctor and unsavoury truths about the cyclist are starting to trickle out. Typical."

"Did the cyclist really get him in a headlock?" a friend asked. "That says viable defence to me."

Perhaps the key question that festered as hundreds of angry cyclists emotionally demonstrated at the scene of the accident: Will Mr. Bryant get special treatment?

Listen, they could resurrect Gandhi to specially prosecute this case, but if the former attorney-general prevails in his declaration of innocence, a sizable number of citizens will believe that the case was rigged from the moment Mr. Bryant was allowed to emerge from a night in custody to face the cameras, not unshaven and rumpled like most people, but impeccably turned out in a sharp suit and shirt and tie.

How frustrating that we will have to wait at least until mid-October to know the end of this sad tale, that in the meantime we will have to deal with more ambiguity and nuance, with not knowing which details matter and which are just the easy ways we have come to typecast our heroes and villains - not to mention voice our own frustrations. We may finally have to acknowledge that notwithstanding a Harvard degree or an alcohol problem, both of these human beings gave in to the wrong emotion at the wrong time. Yet of course only one lost his life.

Told that way, we are left with no clear villain - only colossal misjudgment in a human tragedy that reminds us what we don't want to think too closely about, lest it happen to us: Our lives are completely hostage to human frailty. That isn't the satisfying moral conclusion we want to draw from this story. But it's the one we've got.

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