Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Should Bystanders Do?

NPR had a story about witnesses to brutal events and how they react.

I remember when one of my step-daughters and I were watching a news story unfold together. It was about a lawyer, shot outside of a courthouse by a disgruntled former client as a news cameraman, who just happened to be there, captured the whole thing on tape. My step-daughter, who is a doctor and whose father is a lawyer who may or may not have a disgruntled client some day, was disgusted by this. “Why doesn't he help him?” she kept asking me. I had an answer: He was doing something by recording the scene. But that hardly seemed adequate, and that is exactly how I feel about what went on in that Washington Metro train station.

There is an answer, but it seems inadequate.

The title of the story is "The Dilemma of the Bystander," but it doesn't seem to me like it should be much of a dilemma. Why wouldn't someone witnessing someone being harmed do something? It doesn't always have to be jumping in (although that's great). Just calling the cops or someone else nearby to help would be better than just watching or doing nothing.

Perhaps my understanding of these situations is colored by an experience I had when I was young. I was in fifth-grade (I think) when I witnessed a group of kids my age ganging up on my younger brother after school in an attempt to at the very least push him around a bit if not anything more serious. Did I step in to help him? Nope. I was too scared. I was used to getting picked on and pushed around and the last thing I wanted was more of that. So I just stood there. Luckily our dad was there and he put a stop to it.

I think about that a lot and wish I would have stepped in. It's easier for me to think that now, though, since I've developed the self-confidence to better handle those situations. It helps that part of my job now is dealing with big scary people (try restraining a 6'6", 300 lb. college football player some time) and so I've had some practice. Even with my past, though, I struggle to see how someone could watch someone getting throttled (or worse) and not do something. Like I said, call the cops, get someone else nearby to help. Something.

The question of whether or not to help someone in need, especially in the face of harm, should never be a dilemma.


Dana said...

I think that this is an issue in other areas of life - where we don't step in when people are being metaphorically "beaten up." I just spent the last hour making phone calls to state representatives because of proposed budget cuts to education. That is an issue that affects all of us in this state, but many people would rather not "get involved" while the kiddos are being beaten up.
But, it is incredibly difficult to step into the middle of a physical fight. I think most people that do are just reacting and take no time to think about what they are doing. It's instincutal - so, don't be too upset about not helping your brother in your youth.

Captain Noble said...

I don't feel too upset about it anymore, but it has certainly shaped my perception of these things.