July 23, 2024

Second-Guessing Witnesses

The SF Chronicle says:

The town of Turlock and much of the rest of the nation was shocked when a 27-year-old man beat and stomped his 2-year-old son to death on a rural road. But what was nearly as stunning for many people was that none of the motorists and their passengers who stopped and saw the attack tried to tackle the man.

The story goes on to discuss how average citizens aren’t psychologically prepared to deal with a situation like that, how we’re unsure of ourselves and easily cowed into inaction, etc.  All of these things are true, of course, but at no point does the article venture into more core issues. 

For one, suppose one of the witnesses had attempted to physically intervene on the boy’s behalf.  If the obviously deranged father began to get the better of the Good Samaritan, would anyone else have jumped in to help?  In my mind that’s the most important aspect of the psychological angle – our complete lack of confidence in the willingness of others to do what is right and necessary.

Similarly, no mention is made of adults’ inherent moral obligation to come of the aid of a defenseless child.  Yet this obligation exists, whether our modern society chooses to acknowledge it or not.  Our lack of faith in our fellow man is understandable.  But it’s a little harder to accept our lack of faith in God.  Does He condone inaction in such a case?  No.  Does that not compel us to do what He wants us to do?

Finally, the paper fails to mention the chilling effect of America’s lawsuit-happy legal system on the willingness of these people to physically restrain the killer.  If they’d ganged up on the murderer and beaten him into submission there’s a high likelihood that they would have faced legal action as a result.  No judge or jury in their right mind would convict them, but travesties of the law have happened before.  The mere fact of being named in such a suit brings with it major legal expenses and possible financial penalties, possible loss of employment, etc.  This unfortunate side-effect of our litigious society limits in the extreme, I think, our willingness to act.

Shock and surprise can stop us from doing what’s right.  But fundamental flaws in our legal and moral codes do so even more effectively.

Personally I hope I’m never confronted with such choice.  While I’m relatively strong and athletic for my age – 42 – I wouldn’t be confident facing down a younger, stronger, enraged brute alone.  Praying for moral courage to override physical cowardice might be the only way I could do what was right.  I wonder if anyone did so that night?  That too unknown.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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