I was once posed this question in an ethics class in seminary. If an Olympic swimmer sees a child drowning in a pool and does nothing, is he or she liable of a crime? The answer to that question was no. There was no law (15 years ago) that required us to offer help to another.
Now for a real life example.
In 1964 Kitty Genovese was attacked late at night in front of her building in Queens, New York. She was stabbed repeatedly and raped. She died as a result of her injuries. How people responded has been a dispute since that fateful night. There were multiple witnesses but few people called the police. Some said they thought it was a lovers’ quarrel, others claimed not to hear the attack because it was cold and their windows were closed. Regardless, her death led to psychological studies of human behavior. Those studies resulted in what we call the bystander effect. Put briefly, this phenomena states that the more people there are to help in a situation, the less likely someone will in fact offer assistance. The reasons for this vary. With so many people around, the thought is surely someone else must have called for help. Or perhaps someone else is better qualified than me. Then there’s the ultimate, I don’t want to get involved.
The bystander effect. Bystanders don’t get involved. They watch. They avoid. They wait for someone else to do something. They think, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?”
Flash forward to 2011. Remove yourself from the streets of New York and place yourself in the small, but active alley in the southern Guyangdong province of China. Instead of a 28 year old woman walking from her car to her apartment, picture a 2 year old toddling in front of a van.
Wang Yue, or Yueyue for short was run over by two vans in an alley and lay dying while 18 bystanders ignored her. Some walked past while others drove by, some on scooters. She was disregarded. People stopped to look or swerved to drive around her. It wasn’t until trash collector Chen Xianmei, 57, an illiterate migrant from the countryside saw her that Yueyue received help. Her rescuer pulled her from the middle of the road and called for the girl’s mother who had been hanging laundry at the time the accident happened.
A security camera filmed the entire incident. The video went viral in China and people are calling the tragedy, “the death that awakened the conscience of China.”
The video of the entire incident is below. Warning, it is violent and disturbing.
Jesus was once asked, “Who is your neighbor?” The answer came in the form of a parable that is eerily similar to the stories of Kitty Genovese and Yueyue.
A man is beaten and left by the side of a road to die. Travelers who followed kept their distance. Two men walked past the victim. They continued without helping but a third man stopped. He helped the beaten man. He tended to his injuries. He took him to a hotel where he paid for the man’s stay until he healed. The irony of this story is that the first two were men of God and the third a hated enemy of the victim. (Think Israeli and Palestinian.)
What do you do when you see someone in need? Do you walk by and thank God it’s not you? Do you turn around and walk away, afraid of the scene before you?
Is it our duty to put ourselves in harm’s way in order to help a stranger? Or should it be illegal to avoid helping another when we can do so at no risk to our own safety? Those answers will always be debated.
Regardless of the answers, I am convinced of this. A neighbor will provide help to the helpless, regardless of race, religion, background, or anything else.
In response to the toddler’s death in China, government officials, members of the Communist Party, lawyers and social workers met for three days to discuss how to respond. Some lawyers are trying to draft “Good Samaritan” legislation to protect those who attempt to help and penalize others who deny it.
According to a quote in the LA Times, Zhu Yongping, one lawyer who attended the meetings said, "People are really shocked. Some were crying. We couldn't imagine that moral values have declined so much.”
That’s because of the first 18 people who walked by, none were neighbors, they were mere bystanders. Bystanders do nothing. Bystanders don’t need morals. Morality requires action.