Bystander syndrome

A woman named Wong Shuk Yee was struck by a car on Wednesday, somewhere in the northwest suburbs of Calgary. The driver of this car did not stop. The woman’s body became an obstacle to traffic, & two more cars had to swerve to avoid her. Neither stopped. A fourth car struck her again, dragging her (still living) body a short distance before it became detached; & that driver, too, sped on.

Another woman, named Tonja Beach — mother of four — was drinking her morning coffee at a kitchen table by a window to this scene. She heard the thumps, then looked out. She, alone, ran to the stricken woman’s aid. She found Wong Shuk Yee still alive, & conscious, but with ghastly injuries that could not be survived. She held the woman’s hand to comfort her, as she lay dying.

While she was doing so, innumerable other cars passed, without stopping, including several turning into a nearby daycare to drop off kids. At the transit loop across the street, the driver of a waiting bus remained in her seat. Those waiting at the loop continued waiting. Someone must have called 9-1-1, for the police arrived, & the agencies of the state then began standard procedures, to eliminate this road anomaly. A media reporter was duly assigned to ask Tonja Beach how she felt, & to explain to the woman that psychologists refer to such events — which are now quite common — as “bystander syndrome.” (This is one of the “fun facts” you pick up in a place like journalism school.)

The term describes our modern, non-participatory democracy quite well. Everyone is equal, & everyone has rights. We might call them “the rights of the bystander.” One might say that the most fundamental of these rights, on which all others can now be constructed, is the right to assume that “someone else is taking care of it.”

In this case, all but one of the bystanders did nothing. In the case of the Vancouver hockey riot, all the bystanders joined it, but one — one kid who stood up to the crowd to declare “this is wrong” & was then physically attacked by the rioters he had tried to address. We forget that the evil we witness so often in passive form, may also take active forms.

I do not drive a car, I walk wherever I can, though sometimes I am reduced to public transport. As a pedestrian, over the last decade, I have been twice hit by a car, both times while crossing a street with a green light. In only one of these cases was I knocked flat to the asphalt. It was a glancing blow, & I do not think the driver (her attention focused on making an illegal left turn) ever noticed me.

In the other I remained standing. It was dusk, & the driver must not at first have seen me, coming as she did around a slight curve in the road. Had she not hit the brakes hard, I would have been killed. In the event, nothing more than my handprints were left on the shiny front hood of her exquisite luxury sedan. I did not at first realize that one leg had been twisted in such a way that I would be limping for the next two years. I was too angry to notice. I continued to stand in the way of the now stopped car, glaring at the driver. She — a person I took to be a “professional woman” from her dress, the car, & the expression on her face — shouted obscenities to the effect that I’d intentionally stepped into her way. I pointed to the stoplight, as Zeus with thunderbolt, as she rolled up her windows. It had not yet changed from green in my direction, red in hers. Her face changed from self-righteous indignation to that slightly frightened, “victim” look. (“Men are so violent!”) Then, finding me no longer in her way, she suddenly tore off, now round the corner, accelerating up a fairly empty University Avenue. In the euphoria of my anger, I neglected to take her licence number.

This, incidentally, was a moral error on my part. As Socrates explains, rather warmly to the smart Callicles, in the Gorgias, it is better to suffer wrong than to perpetrate wrong. But having done wrong, it is better to be punished than to escape punishment. And this is universally true. By failing to record the licence number (though I had a notebook & pencil on my person) I had let this woman escape punishment. By doing so, I had wronged her. It was my moral duty to see that this woman received the punishment she deserved, for her own sake, & for my own sake as a just man. “Forgiveness,” in the heart, is quite another thing; & injustice is an impediment to that forgiveness.

I have also been twice hit by a bicycle on the sidewalk; knocked over once, & the other time, gently but intentionally nudged by the wheel from behind by the impatient bicyclist — helmeted, visored, & spandexed — after I ignored his cute vocalized “Beep beep!” instruction to get out of his way. That changed immediately to, “Sorry man! Sorry man!” after I spread him out on the sidewalk, & hovered over his prone person shouting, “Quick, give me a reason not to kill you.” Then walked away contented, for justice had been served.

In three of these cases there were plenty of bystanders. In none did any of them intervene. In the two where I ended sprawled on the pavement, & the one where the bicyclist did, I was aware however vaguely of the crowds of people — my fellow pedestrians — simply standing out of the way, then moving along. Given the neighbourhoods, I would guess they all had important shopping to do.

I have extended these anecdotes to make a point. It would be easy to moralize against the effect of cars — these big metal boxes that insulate the people inside from unwanted human contact. And I would be happy to moralize in that way. But the cars, in this matter, are a red herring. The “issue” here is not technological but civilizational. Too, the glib psychologizing about “bystander syndrome,” & the fake empathy in the prying, “How did you feel?” — are themselves symptomatic.

There is one more excuse I should like to kick away. Tonja Beach made it, on behalf of all the parents delivering their kids to daycare, still on her mind many hours later. “You’d think that everyone taking their kids to daycare,” she told the news reporter, “that any one of them would have stopped. I can understand maybe they didn’t want their kids to see that.” (Two guesses on whether this woman is a Christian believer.)

I daresay their kids did “see that.” It is a myth that all children are born blind, deaf, & incapable of thinking. They saw a woman gravely injured, lying helpless in the road, & they saw their parents drive by, & no doubt heard them try to change the subject. For such parents are on a schedule; they cannot let an incident like this, or childish questions about it, slow them down. They may have “clients” waiting. They have colleagues who notice when they are late. They have big salary on the line. Money talks, after all; & they need that money to pay for stuff like daycare, & “a good home.”

Each of these little children has been taught, in a fairly traumatic way, a very important lesson about their parents, who dump them in daycare to get on with their busy lives, as professional people with “priorities.” And I daresay it is a lesson that will have consequences in each of their little lives, however their experience is assimilated. And there will be further consequences when the sensitive child begins reacting to the evil with which he has been contaminated, as at some point he may. His parents will perhaps seek psychological counselling for their “problem child,” & get him dosed with pacifying drugs. That will teach him the final lesson about what his parents are.

But then, let us be charitable. Perhaps the parents in their turn had been raised by similar, morally worthless parents, in this post-Christian society that has come to consider morality itself to be a form of “oppression.”

It is a myth that people have no conscience. Our Maker implanted that in each of us. We all know that voice perfectly well, even those who deny it. It is the voice to which we reply: “There was nothing I could do.” And we still hear the voice, & we reply, more impatiently, more self-righteously: “The woman was a goner. There was nothing I could do for her. I’m not a doctor, I don’t have a medical degree. And besides, if I got involved, I’d be exposing myself to legal consequences. I might get called as a witness. I might get sued for touching her. People are crazy these days, you don’t need to take risks like that.”

This has been the basic “liberal” act, through all ages: as much among the Pharisees as among our modern adepts of “secular humanism.” It is to refute the True, with the Plausible. It is to answer the hard moral argument with the soft tendentious argument; with mild heckling; with pseudo-moral posturing; with a display of insolence if it comes to that; & finally, with “statistics.” It is to be glib, by reflex, persisting into habit. And yet all these responses are founded in an uncompromising & absolutely necessary act of faith: that there is no God who will come in Judgement.

Czeslaw Milosz called this “the true opium of the people.” He defined it as, “a belief in nothingness after death; the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.”