Do Bystanders Have a Responsibility to Intervene When There is Trouble?

I was out for dinner just the other night, and we witnessed a very awkward young couple coming into the restaurant. After a short contretemps regarding his mobile phone, he paid the bill for the drink they’d each had and then left. She left a couple of minutes later and walked to her car opposite, and the guy appeared from a hidden corner and grabbed her by the arm. She clearly said, “Get off me” and pulled her arm away – whilst I couldn’t hear her, I could easily see her lips move and, in any case, her jerky movements spoke volumes.

I found that I couldn’t take my eyes off the situation; I felt angry and powerfully moved by what I was seeing, yet was frozen to my seat. I wanted to act. I felt that I should act. But I couldn’t; I remained seated. I’m no coward, I like to think, and I know that neither of my friends who I was with are either. So what stopped us from taking that step?

Well, the fact that the man in this story was well – well – over six foot tall, and looked unhinged; there was a glimmer of something in his eye that made me hesitate. He wouldn’t have hesitated, I suspect, in unleashing some crazed attack on me and those around me, and it felt dangerous to even try.

I would still have wanted to do something, however, if it hadn’t been for the woman’s quick movements. She was able to get away from the man, jump quickly into her car, and drive away. I only reflected later that I should, perhaps, have taken her number plate and reported it to the non-emergency police line in case anything happened further down the line. I wish I’d thought of that.

I strongly believe that bystanders have a responsibility to intervene when witnessing a crime. The trust and personal liberty necessary to sustain our communities depend on our ability to interact free of violence, and as members of the community we are ethically bound to preserve peace. Crimes eat at the very core of a free society. The only real question is what form the intervention should take.

When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, the crowd scattered. But some people ran toward the carnage, so they could help the wounded; dozens of medical professionals on the scene applied life-saving tourniquets and performed triage.

Even in everyday situations, bystanders have opportunities to prevent a crime, call for help, or support survivors. Often, they do not: I’m sure we can all think of opportunities where we didn’t intervene; I’ve just told you one example of mine. I’m confident that, if we thought about it, we could think of a moral reason why we inevitably should have done.

Of course, individuals need to determine for themselves what level their intervention can take. For some, simply calling 999 may be as far as they can go. For others, like off-duty police officers or citizens who have trained extensively in martial arts, their personal intervention can directly cut down a threat or even end an attack altogether.

We need to know how to draw the line between self preservation and selflessness. To help stop a crime is always a good thing, but it can hurt you in many ways; for example if someone is attempting a murder and someone tries to stop it, they in turn can be harmed. Sometimes, of course, the person committing a crime is their friend, and that causes conflict in all of us.

A lot of the time, bystanders are so shocked they don’t how to help or what to do; it’s almost like their brain is paralysed, and by the time they realise what is happening, it can be too late. Even on social media, there have been live screenings of suicides and rapes which amassed a large audience who just watch and participate without bothering to report it.

The Bystander’s Effect says that the more people present, the less likely people are going to help out someone in distress. It also makes the person feel like they aren’t good enough to help the person suffering. There are two reasons why this occurs; firstly, it scatters the responsibility of helping the person in distress, therefore one person thinks that some other person present will do it and vice versa – resulting in nobody helping out. Second, being the socially acceptable behavior, if nobody is helping, should I? Is it acceptable? Will it be socially wrong to help them, and will I get hurt due to helping this person?

People, of course, can’t be legally forced to help, but should be morally or ethically driven to help. Maybe not by putting themselves in danger but small steps can still be effective – by calling the police and reporting the crime. Whatever their skills, bystanders have an obligation to stand up for those under attack. Our free society depends on it.

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