Shortly before 6 a.m. on April 18 of last year, Hugo Tale-Yax was walking down a street in Queen's, N.Y., when he came upon a woman being threatened by a man with a knife.
Mr. Tale-Yax, a 31-year-old homeless person, decided to come to the woman's rescue.
The knife-wielding attacker turned on the Good Samaritan, stabbing him several times before fleeing the area. The woman left, too. Meantime, Mr. Tale-Yax lay on the ground, bleeding from his injuries.
The attack would likely not have received much attention had a surveillance video not surfaced showing people walking by Mr. Tale-Yax on their way to work. More than two dozen people, in fact, cast an eye to the man holding his stomach and moaning on the ground but carried on rather than stopping to help him out.
One person could be seen rolling Mr. Tale-Yax over and regarding his injury before continuing on his way. Another stopped and took a picture before doing exactly the same thing. Eventually, someone did stop and call an ambulance. By the time it arrived, 80 minutes after the attack, it was too late. Mr. Tale-Yax would die shortly after.
I was reminded of this story last week when video surfaced that showed a parade of Chinese citizens, 18 in total, ignoring the plight of a badly injured toddler lying on the street after being hit by a van. The contents of the video plunged the Chinese into an emotional internal debate about what the incident said about their country. Had it become a nation of soulless citizens absent of any kind of moral core?
Here in North America, the story incited widespread anger and disgust. But the conversations were also imbued with a certain self-righteousness, a conceit that suggested something like that could never happen here. In civilized parts of the world, one didn't bear witness to another's pain and suffering and do nothing.
Except, as the story of Hugo Tale-Yax shows, the truth is our recent history in North America is littered with examples of bystander indifference that are every bit as troubling as the case of that poor little girl in China who would later die from her injuries.
A few years ago, a 78-year-old pedestrian was struck by a hit-and-run driver in Hartford, Conn. Surveillance video showed multiple cars driving past the man as he lay on the road, writhing in pain. Earlier this year, in Toronto, a woman froze to death in her driveway after neighbours failed to heed her calls for help.
The summer before last, a 16-year-old girl was gang-raped in Maple Ridge, B.C., in full view of many party-goers. Many of those interviewed later said they were waiting for someone else to stop the attack, but no one did.
Social psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: the bystander effect. The case that prompted psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to examine it more closely involved 28-year-old New Yorker Catherine (Kitty) Genovese, who was stabbed to death outside her apartment in 1964. Up to 38 people – the number is disputed – were reported at the time to have ignored her pleas for help.
The bystander effect suggests that the more people there are present in the vicinity of someone who needs help, the less likely it is that any one of them is going to step forward to assist the person. Their numbers create a "diffusion of responsibility" that individuals will use as an excuse to squirm out of their responsibility to be good citizens.
Maybe many of the 18 people who saw but ignored the Chinese toddler nicknamed Yueyue as she lay bleeding on the street thought someone else would assume that responsibility. Either way, their callous disregard toward someone obviously in need of help is incomprehensible. It has prompted a period of introspection throughout China and it should.
We've had enough examples of this kind of cold-hearted apathy in this part of the world to know just how uncomfortable the questions they pose to society are.