by Mark Epstein and Michael Dixon
There is a growing pandemic of indifference to the suffering of individuals and vulnerable groups of people in our society, yet we mustn’t allow it to overwhelm us and prevent us from taking action to ease the suffering of others.
Empathy is part of the beauty of human creation, an essential element of our human nature. A baby smiles at us, we smile back. To give in to indifference is to lose part of our humanity, though other species have it too. Crows have been observed to grieve and hold funerals; orca mother Tahlequah carried her stillborn baby in the Salish Sea for two weeks; even trees are now known to send resources to other trees through their root and air linkages to give support when needed. And yet a subway car full of passengers watched a man being choked to death, with only one person commenting near the end, warning the assailant that if Jordan Neely defecated, that it would mean he was dead. How can we maintain that essence of what we are as humans if we hold others as dispensable? What held the bystanders to this death back from intervening?
The coronavirus pandemic and the issue of masking — not just for personal protection, but to protect others — showed us that many in our country were not willing to inconvenience or discomfort ourselves to possibly prevent harm to others. This attitude only hardened for many, even as the death toll climbed into millions.
In The Town Beyond the Wall, a fictional novel, Nazi Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke of his family’s march to death, when he “saw a face in the window across the way. … It was gazing out, reflecting no pity, no pleasure, and no shock, not even anger or interest. Impassive, cold, impersonal. The face was indifferent to the spectacle. What? Men are going to die? That’s not my fault, is it now? I didn’t make the decision, a simple spectator, that’s what it is. His face, empty of all expression, followed me for long years. I have forgotten many others; not his. … [T]he only face that my memory has retained intact is his.”
Many of our friends and relations refuse to suffer the trauma of watching another videotaped murder, particularly of African American men, women, and children. In Wiesel’s allusion, it is too painful to even approach the window to look. However, the video of this killing shows others were present to view it. What is it that prevented the two white-appearing women and men in the video near its conclusion from intervening before Jordan died? What prevented the videographer from saying something to Daniel Penny to stop him?
The answer to the lack of concern for Neely’s life seems that it might be too complicated; however the lack of action on the part of the other train passengers could only have two possible explanations: Either they had decided that Jordan’s life had less value, or they feared that they were powerless to stop his killing.
The videographer, Juan Alberto Vasquez, said he “wasn’t going to get involved in trying to free him or trying to help him, because you don’t know at what point you’re going to get involved in something bigger.” Asked afterward if he wished he had intervened, Vasquez said, “I am an immigrant — look, as an immigrant, we are in a situation that sometimes ties us down. We do not have the same rights. People always advise that you not get involved … in something that could cause problems with your immigration status. You know that here in the U.S., if you so much as miss a stop sign, it could become a reason to be deported or not granted a permit.”
This fear of their status, which many immigrants carry, has been carefully cultivated over the past 180 years of U.S. immigration policy, dating back to the Irish in the 1840s. Immigrant communities in the U.S. have been oppressed through insecurity and inconsistency; observing what may seem arbitrary access to their being considered a “full American.” Proximity to Blackness or Indigeneity has been perceived as an obstacle to that full acceptance; proximity to whiteness the opening of the doors. Irish were considered Black upon arrival, fleeing from British racial subjugation and famine. Noel Ignatiev, in How the Irish Became White, says that initially they were referred to as “white Negroes,” African Americans as “smoked Irish.” Some Irish resisted the call to racism, most notably the San Patricio Brigade, who went to fight on the Mexican side of the Mexican–American War, recognizing an unjust war that resulted in half of Mexico becoming part of the U.S. Yet within a decade, most Irish were switching over to claim the benefits of whiteness. In practice over the past two centuries, this has meant that any immigrant group and individuals, not just people with European origins, can show a willingness to adhere to the white Americanism model, thereby subscribing to beliefs of anti-Blackness and the inferiority of Indigenous peoples. This racism exists in the fabric of our country; it is why in 2020 the streets cried out that Black and Indigenous Lives Matter. Repairing that fabric calls for land back, tribal sovereignty, and reparations (see California; Evanston, Illinois; and 40 years of legislative proposals).
The women who witnessed Neely’s last breaths were struck by paralysis. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by his verbalization of his pain and hunger. Perhaps women’s experience with violence and angry men led to their silence, that the wrath not come their way. Misogyny can still have a dampening effect on women’s sense of agency, and gains for women have taken place, but unevenly.
To intervene in a situation of violence can present a risk, that fear is valid; however, we cannot allow aggression against people who are helpless or vulnerable if we have a chance to stop it. There is a distinction between indifference and a perceived inability to help. Yet, the choices have the same result: no intervention. Jane Stapleton, executive director of practice at Prevention Innovations Research Center at The University of New Hampshire, explained, “Many people were probably desensitized: ‘Here’s just another homeless guy.’ Passengers on that subway train could have intervened to help Neely before he was ever put in a chokehold, someone could have offered to give him a granola bar or water bottle.”
The tendency to refer to different groups of people as lesser or subhuman, and therefore dispensable, has harrowing precedent throughout history. Brene Brown writes, “Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats in children’s books. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Indigenous people are often referred to as savages. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals.”
Author and activist Kim Tran tweeted on the impact of racial attitudes on people who chose not to intervene to stop a death. “I train people on bystander intervention, and here’s what I want you to know about the people on Jordan Neely’s train: who we see as a victim is racialized. Who we understand as dangerous is deeply racialized. Whether we feel a moment requires interruption is racialized.”
There is no doubt on the actions of Daniel Penny. A Marine, he will surely claim that he perceived a threat that he had to intervene to neutralize, as he was trained as a Marine to do. However, Jordan Neely was no combatant, and the situation could have been handled without his death. Marines are instructed to stop the chokehold short of death. Yet, Penny continued to apply pressure for nearly a minute after Jordan stopped moving. This is where he shifted from dutiful Marine to a murderer. Other people could have assisted in stopping whatever threat they feared Jordan was posing, but Penny proceeded on his own. There are those who try to characterize his intervention as that of the Good Samaritan. Can we accept a change in the definition from one who helps another in need to one who kills them because they’re making people feel uncomfortable?
Of course, countless examples of compassionate action and resistance, even in the face of risk, abound throughout human history. Acts of solidarity with Jews against the Nazi Holocaust included the Japanese ambassador writing passports to thousands of Jews; people offering sanctuary in barns, closets, and churches; and the king and entire country of Denmark wearing the yellow star that the Nazis required of Jews.
We are in a time of peril. If we lose our sense of empathy, our worst fears will continue to be realized, over and over again. There is a simple remedy, though: humane compassion and action.
To close with Wiesel’s resolution: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
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