The Dilemma Of The Bystander A video posted on YouTube last week shows a man being beaten by two teenagers in a Washington, D.C. Metrorail station while a group of bystanders watched. Michel Martin discusses the responsibility we face when we witness a public attack, and acknowledges that being the bystander puts us in a moral dilemma.
NPR logo

The Moral Dilemma In Witnessing Acts Of Violence

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Moral Dilemma In Witnessing Acts Of Violence

The Moral Dilemma In Witnessing Acts Of Violence

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Finally, a word about the awful things that happens to people and what we choose to do or choose not to do about them, and I'm not talking about that horrible mass shooting in Tucson over the weekend that killed six people and gravely wounded a number of others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

I'm talking about an attack on a man named Allen Haywood in a Washington, D.C. metro station the day after New Year's. We hope to speak with him some time this week with 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 board a train after working out at a gym on Capitol Hill.

He was beaten, his book was thrown in the tracks as those two kids and a number of others laughed about it. You can get a sense of it here, and I'll warn you in advance that this is not pretty.

(Soundbite of YouTube video of Allen Haywood assault)

Mr. ALLEN HAYWOOD: Stop this (bleep) right now. Stop this (bleep) right now. I did nothing to you. I did nothing to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Besides being really disgusted by and worried about the behavior of the two very young people who started this, I'm even more worried about what seemed to be dozens of people around him who apparently did nothing to stop the attack or help Haywood 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 about it, except film the whole thing with what looks like a cell phone 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, 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's white? Because they were afraid the kids would turn on them?

Now let me say upfront, 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 stepdaughters and I were watching a news story unfold together, it was about a lawyer who was shot outside of the courthouse by a disgruntled former client as a news cameraman, who just happened to be there, captured the whole thing on tape.

My stepdaughter, who is a doctor, whose father is a lawyer, who may or may not have a disgruntled client someday, 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's exactly how I feel about what went on in that Washington metro station.

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 stopped to get my morning tea, when I saw a young teenager, maybe 14 or 15 years old, repeatedly slapping a very young child of maybe three or four. The teenager was surrounded by his friends and I surmise that he was probably babysitting the child, would rather have been with his friends, and was resentful about it.

I ran across the street saying, can I help you? 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 somebody bigger were hurting him I would hope I would step in. I hope I would. I hope.

And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and you've been listening TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.