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Author: Larry Simoneaux
Date:  February 21, 2010

Topic category:  Other/General

We're becoming bystanders.

I’m going to start this one in an oblique manner by mentioning the “bystander effect.”

One definition puts it this way:

“The term ‘bystander effect’ refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. When an emergency situation occurs, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses.”

In short, if you’re in trouble, it’s best to be in trouble when there are fewer people around. That’s because they won’t all be looking to see if anyone else is going to help before they decide to do so.

Recently, a young lady was viciously beaten in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel - a clean, well-lighted and non-worrisome environment. She was standing next to three security guards when the attack began and, if you’ve seen the video, your response was likely similar to mine.

I was screaming at the television for somebody - anybody - to do something while she was being kicked repeatedly in the head.

I got even more perturbed when one of her attackers returned after a bit to get in a few more licks - all while the security guards did nothing to protect her.

This incident has “”upped” my belief that, as a society, we’ve come a long way. Unfortunately, much of that distance has been down the wrong road.

One reason for that belief is that I now know that those guards were specifically trained not to get into physical altercations. That their sole response to such an incident was to only observe and report what was going on.

That being the case, I’d be willing to bet that not only was the “bystander effect” in play, but also that the security guards’ inaction was re-enforcing it as in: “Well, if the guards aren’t doing anything, maybe we shouldn’t get involved either.”

I’d say that it’s pure luck that the young lady who took the beating is alive.

Even though I think that they should’ve stepped in, I understand why they didn’t. Note: I don’t agree with their choice, I simply understand it. That’s because there’s an old adage that says that you fight the way you’re trained. Their training forbade them from getting involved and that training won out over the moral implications of what was happening.

Again, our problem. We’ve allowed such choices to develop and we’re now reaping what we’ve sown.

In a not-so-distant past, three men in uniform (armed or not) would’ve been able to stop this incident by the use of some harshly phrased commands and a look that just flat screamed, “You punks had better understand that we’re not kidding here.”

Nowadays, though, had the guards intervened and snatched these young thugs up by their collars, lawsuits would likely have followed as night follows day.

Had they stepped in, however, I’d also wager that the “bystander effect” would’ve worked in reverse and other individuals in the area would’ve jumped in too.

But there’s another point that this incident highlights.

No matter how kind, caring, or nice an individual you may or may not be, ours is a world wherein bad things can happen when you least expect them to.

If you’re lucky, help might arrive quickly. The problem, however, is that you might experience what this young lady experienced or even worse.

It behooves you, therefore, to be alert. To cultivate something known as situational awareness. To recognize when things are not all sweetness and light. To sense that matters are trending downhill. To avoid confrontations and to leave quickly (yep, that means running away) if that’s an option.

But, sometimes, it all goes wrong. Sometimes, even in the midst of a crowd and with “security guards” nearby, the only help you may have is the individual you glimpsed in the bathroom mirror that morning - heart now hammering, bladder threatening to empty, and other bodily functions making their need felt.

When such happens, it’d be a good thing if you’d have taken the time to prepare yourself for what you might need to do until a bystander or two decides to help.

That’s not a pretty thought but, then, reality isn’t always pretty either.

If you think differently, picture yourself in that video. It’s where we are as a society.

And that's truly sad.

Larry Simoneaux

Biography - Larry Simoneaux

Larry Simoneaux is a regular columnist for The Everett Herald in Washington state. He is a retired ship driver for the US Navy and NOAA.

Copyright © 2010 by Larry Simoneaux
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