I don’t know if people have always been callous and uncaring towards others. I don’t know if our ancient ancestors, crouching in their caves around the warmth and safety of their fire heard the screams of one of their tribe being savaged by a wild animal, and just sang louder to drown out the sounds. I don’t know if people in small towns are more likely to help their neighbors than people in big cities. And I don’t know if the apathy that we see every day is getting more or less prevalent, or maybe just staying the same. But I do know we have to do something about it.
Yesterday, I was taking a break from my work (which is already depressing enough most days) and decided to read the newspaper. I should have known better.
In Toronto, on Monday night, a 66 year old woman, an Alzheimer’s patient, left her home sometimes after two am and apparently wandered away from her home, with no appropriate clothing. She froze to death in the driveway of a house, approximately one block from her own home. Police officers have been quoted as saying that at least two people heard her screams (presumably for help as she froze to death) and one man saw her distress. The evidence also indicates that she clawed at the screen door of the house she froze in front of, hard enough to damage the metal screen. When police arrived on the scene, they were unable to perform CPR, as her body was frozen solid. No one offered to help her. No one called 911. No charges will be laid.
Here in Halifax, about a month ago, a young man was assaulted in broad daylight at a bus stop on a busy Halifax street. The assaulters stole his iPod and continued to beat him. Police reported that several cars drove directly past, while this young man was on the ground being viciously kicked. A older man from across the street finally yelled at the attackers to stop and told them that he was going to call the police. The attackers fled the scene, taking the victim’s property with them. He was hospitalized for a day. Other than the senior citizen, no one offered to help him. No one in the vehicles passing by called 911. No charges will be laid.
The most appalling example of this remains the Kitty Genovese story. You can look it up, its all over the web. In essence, in March of 1964, Ms. Genovese was returning home from her job as a bar manager at about three a.m. She was assaulted and stabbed by Winston Moseley. When one of the 38 people living in the apartment complex responded to Kitty’s screams of pain and fear with a yell of “you leave that lady alone”, Moseley ran off. About ten minutes later he returned and found Kitty (she had dragged herself toward the door), raped her for a half an hour and murdered her. She was alive and screaming during the rape. Moseley was eventually found, arrested and convicted of Kitty’s murder, along with two other rape/murders. No one offered to help. No one called the police until after she was dead. No one dialed the police while she was screaming and dying.
A South African humanitarian group, POWA (People Opposing Women Abuse) conducted an experiment. Watch only if you are ready to get upset. Hopefully, more upset.
We, as human beings, possess a survival instinct. Its in our DNA. We have atavistic fears of snakes and sharks as a result of this instinct. Our bodies are designed to provide us with the necessary burst of strength, speed and stamina in order to protect ourselves during a conflict. Our brains have been shown to operate at higher processing rates during times of great stress, yet another mechanism that we have for helping to save ourselves from danger.
Our hearts and souls, it would appear, are not so well prepared. Time after time, no one steps in to protect those who need help. Yes, I understand that people want to be safe, and don’t want to put themselves in harms way. After all, those two men beating up that young man for his iPod could be armed killers, ready to slit the throat of anyone who intervenes. That woman could have been a crazed killer, armed with razor sharp dentures, ready to rend the flesh of ... ok... it is bullshit no matter how you pretty it up.
We, as a civilization, are failing ourselves. Maybe it has been happening forever. Maybe there is no hope. But in this day and age, when every damned person driving by the scene of an assault is armed with a cell phone, and all that it takes is one minute to call 911 and report an assault, or a scream from outside, or from the apartment next door... you can help, stay safe, and be anonymous. There is no fear of reprisal. No fear that you are going to take a punch for someone else. You aren’t putting yourself or your family in any danger by dialing the phone or by yelling “I am calling the police” as you drive by.
Dante reserved a special spot, just outside of hell, for those who did not care enough to be good. Apathy, not racism, not hatred, not violence, is the greatest threat that our civilization faces. Those who are passionate enough to stand up and refuse to allow bullies to continue their harassment, who say “No!” to a racist, who challenge our governments to take action against oppressive regimes, and who hold our own government accountable, they are to be commended. They’ve remembered that we’re all in this together, that we owe a duty, if only a moral one, to our fellow human beings to help each other.
Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. day in the US. Dr. King said something far better than I ever could:
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
I fervently believe that the good people outnumber the bad people in orders of magnitude. I know that for every senseless and pointless death and assault we hear of on the news, there are ten situations that were stopped by good people, standing up and saying “NO!”... but those voices need to be hear more often. The good people of this country, of this world, need to take action, to take responsibility. To stop saying “not my problem” and start saying “I may not know you, I may not even like you, but I will help you.”