Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Power of One

This is the fact at hand: four days ago, a 79-year-old man was robbed on the Toronto subway, his wallet stolen by two attackers - and this on a car that was hardly empty, and like all Toronto subway cars equipped with a passenger assistance alarm. Yusuf Hizel couldn't press it, though he tried, because he was a bit busy being mugged at the time. Neither did anyone else in the car, though - and that's the rub. Suburbanites have picked up the story as yet another bludgeon to bring down on Toronto's head, while Torontonians wring their hands about whether this means the end of Good Samaritanism and lolbertarians in newspaper comment threads rail about how it's all because Canadians aren't allowed to carry concealed weapons. Everyone, it seems, has an angle in this story.

What everyone seems to agree on is that the other passengers' inaction was shameful. Personally, I'm not sure what went down - though I've heard that the car surveillance footage will be released today, the reports I've seen suggest that it was fast - but I can understand it. It's something that has roots deep within the human psyche. The bystander effect, in particular, is particularly vicious and tends to crop up in situations like this: perversely, the more people who are in a position to help, the less likely it is that any of them actually will. Whether it's because people subconsciously assume someone else better suited to help will do so, or because they don't want to stand out from the crowd, or so on--

It's difficult to overcome this - even more so if you're unfamiliar with it. In that respect, the news coverage of this incident is a good thing. If people are aware of this issue, if they ever find themselves in the proper situation they may be able to do the right thing. Still, I can understand why those in a position to act, don't - hesitation, fear, an unwillingness to get involved. That doesn't mean I excuse it. For me, the TTC has always been a kind of sanctuary. It's supposed to be safe.

Maybe that's why, when someone assaulted the operator of a streetcar I was on, I at least tried to act. I was too angry to be afraid at first - but as I stood staring at him from across half the length of the streetcar, I buckled. Confrontation can be a frightening thing. I mean, what if he had a knife - or something worse? In the end, all I can really hope for is that since I had him staring and growling right at me for what seemed like forever but was most likely a few seconds, the streetcar surveillance cameras got good video of his face. So I can understand why people might not act.

Nevertheless, if we want the TTC and our city as a whole to continue to be safe, we have to be willing to act, to step forward when necessary. The bystander effect only holds true if no one takes action. One someone, anyone steps up, the spell is broken and people can justify getting involved. We can't allow ourselves to be intimidated.

Safety is in numbers, but it always starts with one.

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