I carp incessantly about the lack of compassion in our modern culture. On my radio show, at barbecues and toll booths, I prattle on and on about the new world order where people will literally step over you on the sidewalk, rather than stop and help you up, much less call 911 if you’ve had a heart attack. Just moths ago, in Boston, there was a highly publicized case where an elderly woman, whose scarf had become entangled in an escalator, suffocated to death while folks walked by. Only one man stopped and frantically tried to summon help to no avail.
This unwillingness to “get involved” is usually attributed to the legal ramifications expected in the wake of a failed attempt to help a stranger, but still, if my child was in distress in a public place, I would hope someone would try to help. Any parent would. Indeed, most parents would want everyone in the immediate area to help. The sad reality is, it is entirely possible, even likely, that no one would help in that circumstance.
Given the rather dismal benchmark, it is therefore not only noteworthy, but cause for celebration, really, when the opposite occurs. It reaffirms our collective faith in humanity. Yes…there are still good people out there who, instinctively and without calculation of self-risk, rush to aid when the need arises.
Recently in New Hampshire, a school teacher, at a lakeside beach, heard screams from nearby and rushed over. A toddler was not breathing, he was blue, and his mother was frantic. She performed CPR and revived the child. When emergency crews arrived, they credited her with “undoubtedly having saved this child’s life”. The teacher commented how she had, just weeks earlier, been through yet another course in emergency first-aid, as mandated by her school. Sometimes, things just work out right. The right person, in the right place, at the right time.
More recently, in Milwaukee, Mayor Tom Barrett stepped up during a volatile situation. How easy would it be for a notable politician to turn the other way, to not get involved? He was at the Wisconsin State Fair with his ten and twelve year old daughters, his sister, and a niece. As they were leaving, in the parking lot, a grandmother was screaming for help, for someone to dial 911. She was with her one year old granddaughter, and a man was screaming at them, trying to take the girl. Mayor Barrett interceded and the man announced that he had a gun and “wasn’t afraid to use it”. The man then punched the Mayor in the stomach and he doubled over. The 20 year old man, it would later turn out, was the estranged father of the child.
It didn’t stop there. The man then told Tom to lay on his stomach, and Tom yelled to his children, sister and niece to run away. Knowing that lying, face down on the ground, was not likely to lead to a happy ending, Mayor Barrett summoned the strength to fight. He got up and swung, but the man had what was later described by police as either a “piece of pipe or an extendable baton”, and he beat Mayor Barrett mercilessly. Barrett’s hand was crushed, he lost two front teeth and had numerous cuts and bruises. His hand was so badly battered, either from throwing punches or from the pipe attack, that bones were sticking out through his flesh. He had significant plastic surgery on his face, to repair a deep gash, and the surgery on his hand took three hours.
The incident occurred on Saturday, August 15th, and on the following Monday the Mayor, while still in the hospital, received a call from President Obama, commending him for his bravery. It is a nice touch, the call from the President, and Mayor Barrett has received accolades from his own community, as he should. We’ll never know what may have happened otherwise in that situation, or if the little girl may well be missing right now had a citizen with enough pluck to say “no”, hadn’t been walking by at the right time.
It is also worth mentioning that the fact that this act of courage, of dignity, really, provoked a call from the President is, in a strange way, a sad statement. There was a time in this country when the course taken by Tom Barrett would have been the norm, not the anomaly. What does it say about our culture that a stranger stepping in to protect a 1-year old child is of particular interest? We like to think it’s expected, that everyone would do it, but it is no longer so.
As we watch our culture turn more inward, more geared towards “self”, and at the same time become so numb to violence of every sort, it should be expected that if you find yourself in bind, don’t look to the nearest stranger for help. The morals and social boundaries were part of a civilized culture for a reason. As we abandon them with reckless wonder, we witness more and more that the default position of human interaction is not peace, love and happiness…it’s more like dog-eat-dog.