To Help or Not to Help

It's midnight at a sandwich shop just outside of Boston. I enter with three of my friends, all of us male, in our late 20s. We go to the counter to order.

But something is very wrong. In one corner are four men, also in their 20s. They're drunk and very loud. They make vulgar comments to the shop staff and provocatively throw food in the direction of customers. A chill runs up my legs. These men are hoodlums spoiling for a fight. Nothing could be more clear. I look at my three friends. We communicate with our eyes: "Four of them. Four of us. If they touch any of us, we all jump in."

Then, another man enters the shop, alone. He carries a book bag. "Hey, I like your purse," one of the drunk men says to him.

It's an insult. Another insult fol-

lows, and in a flash, two of the drunk men walk over and begin savagely beating this man carrying the book bag. One punches his face while another kicks him in the back.

This happens right in front of me and my friends - and we do absolutely nothing. We don't move. We are afraid. We know we'll defend each other if attacked, but until then - nothing.

The beating goes on. An innocent person is being hurt right next to me.

I glance at the drunk men. They are looking around eagerly, virtually begging bystanders to get involved. These are experienced fighters, reckless from drink, violent by temperament. Surely they carry knives - at a minimum.

The victim is on the ground now, bleeding, calling for help. I know my inaction is wrong. My cowardice shocks me. I think: If they endanger his life, if they pound him unconscious with a chair and keep going, I will act.

Just then, the shop manager yells that the police are coming. The drunk men kick the downed man again, then finally flee. The injured man stands, shaking, bloodied, and turns to me and my friends, confronting us.

"Why?" he asks insistently, righteously. "Why didn't you help me? You just stood there and watched."

We avert our eyes and say nothing - and all these years later I'm still trying to answer the question.

Why? Because I was afraid. Because I knew I would be instantly injured, perhaps severely. That threat, at that moment, was greater than my genuine impulse to help this stranger. For my buddies, I would have overcome my fear. For a stranger, short of impending homicide, I could not bring myself to risk my safety and that of my three friends.

This explanation dissolves, of course, the second I put myself in the victim's shoes. How could four young men stand by and watch while I'm savagely beaten? Homicide? One well-placed kick to the head could have killed me. The only moral choice was to help me.

Looking back, I understand why I didn't act, but I've lived with shame all these years, too. If it happens again, I like to think I'll act differently, that I'll be courageous, that I've learned a lesson. But there's a new wrinkle now. My decisions affect more than just me: I have a 10-month-old child. Do I risk leaving him fatherless? Is that fair? My mind says no, no, no - until, again, I place myself as victim. I see myself pleading for assistance: "Please, for my child's sake, help me!"

I have another friend, Myron, who recently knocked a pistol from a street mugger's hand, allowing his four companions to escape unharmed. But Myron was pistol whipped and easily could have been shot. "I'd do it again," Myron says. "But you never know till it happens."

Maybe he would. Maybe he wouldn't. Maybe I would. Maybe I wouldn't.

We can't always do what's right. And that's wrong. We can't always know what's right. And there's reason to be sorry.

* Mike Tidwell is a writer in Takoma Park, Md. His latest book is 'Amazon Stranger' (Lyons and Burford, 1996).

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