Sunday, 6 July 2008

Butt in or butt out?

After several horrific fatal stabbings in London, people are asking themselves what they would do if they saw something dreadful happening as they walked down the street.

What would I do? If I saw a man attacking a woman or threatening someone with a knife, if I saw a woman wrecking her ex's car or hitting her child, would I intervene or would I hurry past telling myself it was dangerous to interfere?

I've often seen mildly disturbing scenes like a man and woman screaming at each other or a woman swearing at her little boy, but I've never seen anything so violent or sickening that I've thought seriously of trying to stop it and protect the victim.

It's hard to predict what I would do if I suddenly found myself in that situation. I like to think I would do the altruistic thing and intervene but I might simply be too scared to act. Especially if the attacker looked really vicious or was brandishing a weapon.

I do remember though an occasion many years ago when Jenny and I were in a London supermarket and saw the manager knock to the ground a frail elderly man who was walking out with a stolen packet of cheese.

We were so disgusted we complained heatedly to the cashier and abandoned the basket of groceries we had been about to buy. Afterwards we both felt very public-spirited and glad we had made our anger known.

But when I hear about people who've tried to stop some act of violence, and ended up seriously injured or even dead, it does make me think twice about being a Good Samaritan. When it came to it, would I just cut and run?


  1. I would like to think I too would be altruistic. but I too would be sizing up the situation first.

  2. Not so altruistic I'm afraid. I'd intervene if it was an argument or a minor scrap or if the contenders were young enough to be 'told off' but not if a weapon was concerned. Last year a Dutch tourist was shot and almost killed for intervening in a domestic argument in a Sydney street . . he was hailed a hero but another 'helper' was not so lucky and paid for it with his life. Hard to say how I'd behave in a life-threatening situation with the help of an adrenalin rush - I might be braver.

  3. Hulla - I'd definitely size up the situation. I can't see myself just jumping in instinctively, heedless of any danger.

    Baino - That's what I wonder, would an adrenalin rush push aside the mental doubts and have me leaping into action regardless? And maybe end up fighting for life in a hospital bed?

  4. I'd like to think someone would at least call the police if I were in danger, hurt, or simply being physically attacked. I would hate to think people watch me I am some horror movie and move on to drive to their lovely warm safe homes or continue on to go to their dinner as if nothing happened. So I would do anything in my power to help out. I am a 3rd dan in Hapkido and I know how to defend myself but I am not bullet proof so I would judge the situation carefully before interfering. If there are guns involved there is no way I am butting in. I would call the police asap though. G

  5. There was a particularly shocking incident in NYC several years ago in which a woman was stabbed to death in the courtyard of her apartment building.

    Her screams drew the attention of many people, all of whom watched her try to defend herself unsuccessfully from the safety of their own apartments, but NOBODY called the police.

    We all have cell phones. The kind of public violence you mention is exactly what they are for. I have interfered on occasions when an adult was beating a child, but if there is a weapon it's safest to call the police. If someone is capable of violence, they will use it against you as well.

  6. Gayé - I would certainly call the police if it were that serious, but of course the police may take time to arrive and may be too late to save someone.

    Heart - That's incredible that so many people watched but none called the police. What did they think was going on, some sort of public entertainment?

  7. Actually we teach our students to yell FIRE when they are in trouble and not HELP. Noone wants to help but everyone cares about where the fire is because their house or car might be on fire. For selfish reasons. The idea is to get attention of people so the attacker would feel it's no more safe to continue with the attack and there is increased chance of running off.

    Hi there Heartsinsanfrancisco: About everyone watching and noone making a phone call; there was a study done on this topic. The reason, when a whole heap of people witness an event as such, or an accident even, they all assume someone would have called the police, fire department, 911 etc etc. It doesn't occur to the person witnessing something terrible that, noone has called assuming the person next to them already did. It's an established fact.
    Anyways, I personally would try to yell something like POLICE COMING, FIRE or something, if I know that I can't physically get involved (guns - as I mentioned is a big no to get in the way of)...
    That's my not so professional opinion as I am not a police or counsellor or anything, but I studied self-defence, awareness, and taught it for years so I guess some common sense should really apply.

  8. It's a difficult one and I think that you can never predict in advance what you would do.
    However, where I live it is illegal dor owners to let their dogs poo on the grass and not pick it up. I have seen many owners leave the mess behind and I never tell them off.
    Why? Because I figure that anybody who is ignorant enough to leave the mess is also more likely to be violent if I would confront them. Given my behaviour in this simple circumstance I am pretty sure that I would not be a hero in most other circumstances.

  9. You have a point there (about the stupid dog owners and people who don't care enough to do the right thing won't care to listen without getting aggresive). Having said that, I always tell people as gently as I can, expecting an earful of swearing anyways, not to do something or to do something, only because I want them to think next time they do it someone else might object. And that it's NOT OK to leave dog's shite on the ground. That it's not ok to spit. Or litter. Or park at a disabled parking despite having no disabilities what so ever. That's me, but one day I will probably get someone "attempt" to beat me up or something.
    AND if I were living in the US, I'd keep my mouth shut totally, since there is no knowing who will pull out a gun, machine gun, hunting gun, etc. Gun freaks.
    Nick ~ Maybe next post you could write about gun laws and why they ARE necessary?

  10. Niall and Gaye - Interesting that people assume that someone else has called the emergency services. The idea of shouting Police Coming is good, as long as it doesn't encourage the attacker to put the boot in quick and get away.

    Aidan - I wouldn't assume that people leaving dog mess would get violent, though they would probably be argumentative and stubborn. But I must admit I ignore such people as well.

    Gayé - Impressive that you always approach people doing something anti-social. A journalist said recently that she did the same, and contrary to popular belief people were usually good-natured and cooperative. Only a very small number were belligerent.

    Gun laws? I don't know much about them, their being an American convention. If you're referring to the increased use of guns in Britain, that's certainly worth discussing.

  11. Six or seven years ago I was walking home from a party one night when I found a girl sitting on the side of the road, barefoot and crying. Her face was bruised and I stopped up and asked her was she okay. She said her boyfriend had beaten her up (for the nth time) and she'd run out of the house without her shoes but begged me not to call the police, that it would make things worse. She said she'd called her brother to come pick her up. I wanted to wait with her but she was having none of it. I left her there at her insistence but felt guilty about it for ages afterwards.

    About a year later I moved to Italy where my neighbours were a couple with a small child. The wife was small and slim, and the husband was a huge man who would have been almost twice her weight. They fought constantly, but one Sunday afternoon I could hear him beating her around the apartment. I was terrified - too terrified to call the police - for one in case it would make things worse for her (like the other girl) - but also because I was scared for myself, as he would know it was I who had called the police. I called a male friend who came straight around and we debated what to do - he wanted to knock on the door and confront the husband, I didn't want him to because I was afraid he'd have chucked him over the balcony. In the end the husband left and I went and knocked on the door and asked her was she okay, but she didn't answer. I could hear her crying inside.

    It sounds cowardly, retelling it now, but I lived alone and was terrified of retaliation. There would also be nothing stopping him finishing off what he'd started doing to her once the police had gone, if I had called them and she had refused to press charges. If anybody had asked me beforehand whether I would have called the police if I overheard my neighbour being beaten up by her husband I would have said yes without hesitation, but fear is far more powerful than you might think.

  12. Caro - I totally understand. As you say, it's easy to think you'd intervene, but in situations like that where the man could turn on an outsider as easily as he turns on his wife/girl friend, you think twice about getting involved, even though what's happening to the woman is sickening.

    And that's the difficulty with calling the police - firstly, he'd know it was you and secondly, once the police have come and gone, the violence may start all over again.

    Yes, it's fear that stops you acting, but it's also self-preservation and realism about what the consequences might be.

  13. it is a very tricky question, Nick. I don't know what I'd do. I do intervene, like recently, when I saw a small child without a helmet on an ATV with his father. The father got belligerent. (None of my f** business)> I said he was breaking the law and I would call the police and he told me he'd show me what breaking the law was really about. BUT he did skulk off and take the child off the ATV. There were others around so I felt safe. Don't know what I'd do in other cases.
    I do recall the Kitty Genovese case in New York.
    Are we all becoming desensitized to violence?

  14. www - That's a good point about your feeling it was safe to protest because there were other people around. Though there again, how many would quietly disappear if you got into trouble?

    I don't think we're becoming desensitised to violence, but I think we're uncertain how to deal with it, for the reasons we're discussing here. It's repugnant but how exactly do you stop it?

  15. I've called the police twice when an incident was getting out of control.

    Both involved violence against a woman.

    In one case it was the next door neighbours and I just didn't want bad vibes afterwards.

    In the other the guy was huge and would likely have beaten me to a pulp.

    I'd like to think I'd intervene but I also know I'd be out for self preservation too.

  16. Quicky - Well, good for you calling the police even though the guy might have guessed you called them. And was that the end of the violence next door or did it start up again?

  17. Thankfully that was the end of the violence but unfortunately only because they split up and he moved out.

  18. I've never intervened because I definitely don't want to be on the receiving end of whatever's going on, but I've seen plenty of violent stuff go down and I always call the police. A few of the comments reminded me of how last year one of my neighbors was beating the heck out of his live-in girlfriend. I went outside and two other neighbors were standing there debating whether or not to call the cops! "She's just going to go back to him!"

    I called because I figured if she went back to him, it was on her, but I still needed to do the right thing and at least make the attempt to get him arrested. Plus I thought about how if he was in there killing her and we'd done nothing, I'd have that hanging over my conscience for all eternity. I'm glad I called because even though she didn't press charges, she did leave after that.

  19. Quicky - Well, I'm glad they split up. That sounds positive.

    Liz - How can people just stand there debating whether to call the police? You were absolutely right to call them. As you say, he could have been murdering her. And good to know she left him.

  20. In this age of cell phones, I've made calls to the police several times. I've called when seeing a woman, disheveled and appearing disoriented, as I was afraid she might hurt herself. I have also called the police twice when observing a man physically abusing a woman.

    It doesn't take much to make the call and you don't have to get into the fray. I don't subscribe to the hero element but, I do think we have an obligation to help one another.


  21. Gayle - It's excellent that everyone calls the police if the moment calls for it. After all, they're trained (and armed) to deal with dangerous situations whereas members of the public aren't and we could end up on an A&E trolley.

  22. I would always like to believe that I would intervene however, I am a bit of a chicken. And you hear such terrible stories.

    I have summonsed the Gardaí once when I saw something awful on the street.

  23. Lottie - Better to be a chicken than wind up dead meat! I think we all like the idea of being a hero/heroine but the reality is that some people will be vicious to anyone who interferes.

  24. Nick,

    I have bestowed on you a blogger award, the Arte Y Pico. Please see details on my blog today.

    You might not have been aware that I am one of your most regular readers as I don't always comment but I do find your blog to be one of the most insightful and thought provoking reads.

    Best wishes,

  25. Call the cops and shout that you have done so from a safe distance.

  26. Sharon - Wow, that's great! I'm always absurdly pleased that someone regularly reads and enjoys my blog! I would comment more on yours except that weight loss luckily is not one of my problems so I haven't much to say!

    Thrifty - That sounds like exactly the right thing to do. The police may often be heavy-handed but at the end of the day - we need them.

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  28. I think my worst nightmare would not be getting attacked one day, but living next to neighbors who would be too afraid to do the simplest of things (too afraid to call the police from the safety of one's home) to possibly help save my life. I hope I never have to be surrounded by people who would just watch or people drive-by as if it is just another crime-show on TV.
    I, personally, do whatever I can in my power because I imagine that, if the person getting harrassed, robbed, maimed, beaten were me, I'd want someone to care enough to do something (that something doesn't include putting their body in the way of a bullet of course!), anything... really...
    Also, I truly hope that, if not for fear of being hurt themselves, most people would actually do something to try and help. I would like to think that if someone was brave enough to make a move, those people would join in. One against many? Again, unless a weapon of "mass destruction" is involved what can the attacker do against many people who are in some way or another are trying to help.
    I think this is all I will say about this topic.
    Thanks for the post and thanks for all the thoughts from others. It's good to read what people think about these things, gives good insight even if sometimes scares me senseless.

  29. Gayé - That's certainly what would motivate me to do something, the thought that if I were the victim I'd expect others to help. As you say, if one person intervenes then hopefully others will as well. I'm baffled by people who just watch as if it's some kind of circus act.

  30. I can understand not wanting to get involved if you feel you can't bring any help yourself but surely one can seek other help or phone the police. I did once shout a big 'Hey what are you doing ' at a bike thief here in Holland he walked away but I got more attention from the crowd than he did :-)

  31. Conor - That's true, there's other help you can call on as well as the police - like a tall and burly friend maybe. So the bike thief was less interesting than you? It must have been that orange hairdo you tried out lol.

  32. I've tried to intervene - I saw a girl being smacked by her male companion and there was no garda (police) around. So I yelled at him to leave her alone, and both of them turned on me, the girl most of all. Insanely she accused me of "talkin' to her fella" as if "stop hitting her!" was a chat up line.
    Now I just call the police. The only exception I'd make is if a child was in danger.

  33. BB - That's really weird when the woman herself warns people off. Even when her guy is attacking her, she still colludes with him! It's sad when a woman has been brainwashed to that extent.