Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Bystander Effect

I'm not proud of what I'm about to share with you, but I don't want to hide from it either. It's inspired a lot of soul-searching on my part and it's something that we might all do well to ponder for a moment. I'm ashamed to admit this, but it's all true.

Tonight I was on the platform waiting for the train at the Gallery Place Metro station and I heard sudden shrill screams from above. "Help!! Somebody please help me!" There were a couple of teenagers to the left of me who arrived a few minutes earlier and they were somewhat rowdy and started laughing to themselves and I heard one of them say, "Haha, he say 'somebody help me?'" And then I thought it must be a prank, that it was someone with their group. I looked to the right and there were two other people who, like me, were standing there by themselves. We all looked around, concerned, not knowing what to do... the screams came from above, near the entrance to the station so there were Metro employees up there who could respond right away. We all exchanged concerned glances (well, not the teens so much) and then through this cloud of confusion, awkwardness and uncertainty, a man came racing past us. He was clearly not thinking, just reacted, and raced toward the scream. He passed the UP escalator before he realized the cries came from upstairs and not from the platform level. Rather than turn around and go up the designated escalator, he raced up the DOWN escalator. Fueled by determination, he made it up surprisingly fast. It was not until then that I realized what had just happened - someone was screaming for help and a crowd of people just stood there. I had just stood there.

I still don't know what happened or why the person was screaming. My train arrived and I got on and I have thought of little else since then. I have thought of Kitty Genovese and the more recent murder of Jayna Murray in Bethesda. Both cases when in hindsight, everyone shares disbelief that no one reacted. I really want to be that guy. The guy who ran up the wrong escalator to come to the aid of a stranger. But I was not that guy, I was just like everyone else.

It was not lack of concern that kept me from reacting, but at first I was in disbelief that the cry was genuine (I associated it with the rowdy teenagers), and then after the man ran past to offer help, I continued to wonder what I should do. All of these things went through my head: I have no medical training, I am not armed, I have a bad back and can't lift things, and strangely I just felt like it was none of my business. Like I didn't want to go up there and just stare at a person in need when there's nothing I could do. Plus, I knew that the Metro employees were there. These were all things that went through my mind. In hindsight - a.) I have a cellphone, if nothing else I could call for help and talk the person through. b.) Why did I count on a Metro employee helping this person? What if it WAS the Metro employee who was calling for help? c.) If everyone thinks the same way that I do, then we are all doomed. d.) "It's none of my business", while polite, is not a good rule of thumb in a potential emergency situation.

I have gone over this repeatedly in my head. Mostly because I am ashamed by my pathetic lack of reaction. But also, I can't stop thinking about that guy who ran up the escalator. Do you know how hard it is to run up an escalator that is moving downward? It takes a lot of effort or else you're just running in place. But this man who ran past me, he ran as if he was running for his own life. His energy and quick reaction was what you would expect from someone who was in danger and their life depended upon it. But this person's life did not depend upon it, he was responding to cries for help from a stranger whose life may or may not have depended upon it. I think this guy was a superhero. I don't mean to say that he looked like a superhero, because that was the most inspiring thing about it. He did not have the physique of someone who does regular drills running against a treadmill. He was also carrying a bag or a backpack that bounced haphazardly while he ran. As much as I regret my own behavior, I am equally inspired by this person. He did not even know what kind of situation he was running into, he was just running toward potential danger. I don't think I will ever be that guy. Clearly it is more likely that my slow reaction time will get me killed someday. By the time I realize that there is a potential threat, my reaction is more likely to be of self-preservation. That is part of what makes the guy so remarkable. If there had been a gunman at the top of that escalator, that guy would have been killed immediately. He would have been racing against an escalator toward his death. Even now that I wish I would have done something, I still don't think I'm capable of that much blind courage.

But it's a good time to consider two things - first, that if someone is crying for help and other people are standing their by themselves, that's the time to engage with those people. Instead of exchanging glances and allowing the other person's inaction to convince us that it was okay not to react, I should have engaged with them. Maybe we would have just verbally enabled one another's apathy instead of exchanging glances to satisfy it, but it's also possible that we could come together and taken action without being so afraid. The second thing to consider is if you are ever the person who is crying out in need of help. Take note that if you simply yell "Help" or even something more urgent like "Someone please help me", then there is a good chance that no one will react. If you find yourself crying for help and have the presence of mind to consider this, then it would behoove you to give a directive and smack people out of the fog of the bystander effect. For instance, "Someone please call 9-1-1." is better than "Someone please help me." Most people in earshot will have a phone and probably wouldn't hesitate to dial those three numbers from a safe distance. We all want to be heroes. We all want to be that guy on the escalator. But most of us are far more likely to dial a cell phone than race toward a potentially dangerous situation. That guy is a rare breed and if you or I are ever in danger, I hope he is somewhere nearby. In the meantime, maybe we could all strive to be more like that guy.

As I have said, I don't know what happened tonight that caused the person to scream. I will try to find out, and it's possible that if I know the whole story I will feel the need take this blog down or edit. It is not my intention to make excuses for what I did, or rather, what I didn't do. I'm just telling my side of the story and you may judge me harshly for it. It's all true. Superheroes are real and I saw one tonight.