Bystander Apathy

for the week of August 5, 2002
by Rubel Shelly

What do the following people have in common? A firefighter, police officer, or rescue worker who pulls someone from a burning car seconds before it explodes. An ordinary Jane or Joe who rushed down an embankment to help people get out of a derailed Amtrak train car last week outside Washington, D.C. Someone who helps an older person who has fallen or a lost child find a parent. One who picks up litter in a public place or delays an elevator for a stranger.

Here are some of the words that might have come to your mind: heroic, kind, helpful, compassionate, altruistic, or concerned. For some of the situations described, "helpful" is too tame; for others, "heroic" is too strong. So maybe there isn't a single term that covers them all unless you said "increasingly rare."

My friend John Young showed me a newspaper article recently that started me thinking about this issue. It labeled the attitude of people who simply see and turn away from situations of obvious need "bystander apathy." The story quotes Dr. Paul Fink, a professor of psychiatry at Temple University. "There are very few people who actually get involved these days," he said. "If it's a choice between helping someone or protecting themselves, people will protect themselves."

Bystander apathy is what ailed the first two fellows who passed by the poor victim who had been beaten, robbed, and left to die in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It was the tragic spirit that held sway in the 38 people who watched and listened without helping or even phoning the police when a 28-year-old woman was stabbed and raped over a half-hour period in the notorious Kitty Genovese case. It is what kept more than 100 people from trying to intervene in Chicago last week while two men were pulled from a van and beaten to death after their vehicle slammed into a stoop and injured three young women.

We've endured an era in which "looking out for Number One" was praised. And we are the worse for it! A term being heard more frequently nowadays is community. We can only hope it becomes a reality and not merely a buzzword. Empathy, social responsibility, and a sense of justice are critical to our humanity.

The Good Samaritan wasn't on a crusade. He wasn't cruising around for an opportunity to do something heroic. He just happened upon a situation that revealed his character as a person who cared about his neighbor's plight.

Try not to be so self-absorbed today that you miss a chance to be merciful.

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