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The video of a Filipino woman being beaten in New York City on Monday, shared on social media and via news reports, is gut wrenching. It is horrifying to watch the woman knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked in the head. But what made the video even more upsetting was seeing three men simply watching from a nearby building where the video footage was captured. Near the end of the video, a security guard walks toward the woman on the sidewalk outside the luxury apartment building, not to help her but to close the door.
The victim in the New York City attack, 65-year old Vilma Kari remains hospitalized with a broken pelvis, according to her family. The perpetrator has been charged with a hate crime.
The ownership of the apartment building says it has suspended the three workers who failed to act. A union representative says the men called for help and that the public should not rush to judgment.
This follows a video from last week in which two teenage girls are seen carjacking a vehicle in Washington, D.C., and crashing it a few hundred yards away as the car’s owner, 66-year-old Mohammad Anwar, an Uber driver, clings to the side. As the video ends, several people mill around the car, helping the girls out of the overturned vehicle. In the brief video, no one goes to the aid of Anwar, lying motionless on the sidewalk. He died after being taken to a hospital.
These videos raise the troubling question: Why are we often hesitant to help one another?
Certainly, there are examples every day of people putting themselves at risk to help others, whether they were in an accident, are drowning, being attacked or in danger in some other way. These people are often called heroes.
There are also risks to helping someone in danger. You could be hurt or attacked.
But, what of the seemingly growing number of people who capture a scene on video rather than render aid? What about those who simply turn away? Or, worse, shut the door to a fellow human who is being beaten?
This behavior has a name: the bystander effect. Psychologists have documented that when a group of people watching someone being bullied, assaulted or in an emergency situation they are less likely to help. The more people are present, the less likely any one individual is to help. Conversely, people are most likely to help when there are few or no other people present.
Many institutions, including the University of Maine, offer training in bystander intervention to encourage and teach people how to intervene when it is needed. Much of this work focuses on sexual harassment and assault.
The first step is to actually observe the situation. Psychological research has found that we are more likely to respond when we know or identify with the person who needs help because they are like us. Deciding to help can require us to move beyond such tribal instincts.
Next, we should determine whether the situation is an emergency and that someone is in need of assistance. If help is needed, next comes taking responsibility and intervening. This can range from asking someone to stop with abusive jokes or remarks to moving the person out of a dangerous situation to calling the police.
The most important step is to take notice of a situation where help is needed and to get involved, even it is to be an active witness who can help police track down a perpetrator, as was the case in last week’s fatal attack in York. “People need to make their own decision about what they can safely do,” York Police Chief Charlie Szeniawski said in response to online comments criticizing witnesses for not intervening. “The best thing they can do is be the best witness they can be.”
Intervention not only helps the person in a dangerous situation, it sends a message to the larger community that those who face danger are not alone and that others are willing to assist them.
“When I look at the video, the inaction is what’s heartbreaking,” Mon Yuck Yu, a health advocate for immigrants in New York, told the New York Times after Monday’s incident. “If you are being attacked, the community will not be standing for you.”
That’s a message that should be intolerable.