Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

The Moral Dilemma In Witnessing Acts Of Violence

Passengers walk along the platform at a commuter train station in Washington, D.C. i i

hide captionPassengers walk along the platform at a commuter train station in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Passengers walk along the platform at a commuter train station in Washington, D.C.

Passengers walk along the platform at a commuter train station in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

A word about the awful things that happen to people and what we choose to do – or not do – about them.

I am not talking about the horrible mass shooting in Tucson over the weekend that killed six people and gravely wounded several others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

I am talking about an attack on a man named Allen Haywood, in a Washington, D.C. Metro station, the day after New Years'. We hope to speak with him sometime this week but the details are available for all to see on YouTube already.

He was attacked in the early evening by two young teenagers – for no apparent reason that anybody can see – as he read a book, waiting to go home on Washington's rapid transit train system after working out at a gym on Capitol Hill. He was beaten and his book was thrown on the tracks, as those two kids and many others laughed about it.

Watch on YouTube

Warning: Contains graphic material. Viewer discretion is advised.

You can get a sense of it here, and I'll warn you in advance this is not pretty.

Besides being really disgusted by and worried about the behavior of the two very young people who started this, I am even more worried about what seem to be dozens of people around Haywood who apparently did nothing to stop the attack or help him, except take pictures.

In the video I saw, and you heard, you can hear the voice of a man, who might be a teenager himself, expressing disgust with what's going on. But he doesn't seem inclined to do anything except film the whole thing with what looks like a cellphone camera.

Can I just tell you? It's easy to rail against the indifference of humanity. It's a lot harder to figure out what to do about it. But rail we must because silence really does equal assent. And we also have to ask the hard questions including questions of ourselves.

Why, first of all, why do some step in and so many look away? Or more to the point: continue to look and do nothing. Thankfully in the shooting rampage in Tucson, several people had the presence of mind and the courage to tackle the shooter, when their own lives were clearly at stake.

So, why did nobody help Allen Haywood, or even, apparently, call Metro authorities who are present at every train stop? Because Haywood is a man, and they thought he should be able to take care of himself? Because he is white? Because they were afraid the kids would turn on them?

Let me say up front that the dilemma of the bystander is one I know well, for the simple fact that I work in this field. The definition of a journalist – at least it was until recently – was somebody who stayed out of the fray, under the theory that the act of bearing witness is its own moral act.

This is not always comfortable.

I remember when one of my step-daughters and I were watching a news story unfold together. It was about a lawyer, shot outside of a courthouse by a disgruntled former client as a news cameraman, who just happened to be there, captured the whole thing on tape. My step-daughter, who is a doctor and whose father is a lawyer who may or may not have a disgruntled client some day, was disgusted by this. "Why doesn't he help him?" she kept asking me. I had an answer: He was doing something by recording the scene. But that hardly seemed adequate, and that is exactly how I feel about what went on in that Washington Metro train station.

There is an answer, but it seems inadequate.

These days, we talk of the citizen journalist – one who stands by and aids the reporting process by using increasingly inexpensive and accessible recording devices. Does this mean we are all bystanders now?

Just a few weeks ago, I had stopped to get my morning tea when I saw a young teenager, possibly 14 or 15 years old, repeatedly slapping a very young child of maybe three or four. He was surrounded by his friends, and I surmised that he was probably babysitting the child, would rather have been with friends, and was resentful. I ran across the street saying, "Can I help you?" explaining I had young children too and maybe I could help him get things back on track. The boy – and he was a boy – told me in no uncertain terms to mind my own business. I told him if someone bigger were hurting him, I would hope I would step in.

I hope I would. I hope.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues
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