Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Ducks, Sitting

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So, to start–I went through a certain amount of trouble yesterday NOT to mention any names in that story I told, since it appeared on FB in the context of a restricted audience. 

So, cat out of the bag or not, I’m not going to mention any names here.

But the answering to my question of yesterday about what the employees, the managers and the other shoppers did after a hundred pound box fell on a 4 year old girl is–nothing.

Everybody just stood around and watched as the mother tried to get the box off the girl.

Nobody helped. Nobody called 911.

And nobody did anything else, either.

And that was what struck me about that story, and about a few other stories I’ve read over the last year or so.

What struck me was the image of lots of people standing around waiting for somebody else to tell them what to do, rather than jumping in and doing something themselves.

What struck me was the passivity.

The first time I heard a story like this, it wasn’t about the US, but about England. 

I went looking for my notes on it this morning and couldn’t find them, but what it concerned was a group of police who let a man die because the department that was supposed to deal with that particular man’s rescue was somebody else. 

So, instead of saving the  man’s life, they waited patiently for the right people to show up.  Following the rules was more important that saving the man.

I remember thinking at the time that the US hadn’t gotten to that point of bureaucratic passivity yet, but less than a year later, I heard a virtually  identical story about California.

There were a bunch of police officers standing on the beach, doing nothing as they watched a swimmer drown in the ocean.  They didn’t have authorization to save a victim of drowning.  They were waiting for the EMTs, who did.

The story of the girl and the box and the everybody who sat around doing nothing is a similar one, just on a smaller scale. 

I don’t think the managers or the employees or the other customers were worried they’d get sued.  I think they’d been trained to sit and wait until somebody official came along who was the one who was supposed to solve the problem.

I don’t think the issue was that they didn’t care.  I think it was that they had been taught all their lives that they were NOT to take the initiative.


This is the entire idea behind the “anti-bullying” campaigns, which punish both the agressor and the defender for fighting.

Don’t defend yourself, these campaigns say.  Wait patiently, get your ass kicked six ways to Sunday, until the Official Person shows up.  Then she’ll put the bully in detention and send you to a therapist.

The problem, however, started a long time before the anti-bullying campaigns.

You see it in some of the stories that came out of Virginia Tech–classroom after classroom full of students and teachers who just…sat there.

The gunman could only be in one classroom at a time.

Yet, nobody in the classrooms where this guy wasn’t got the idea to jump out a window and run, or barricade the classroom door and call the cops, or…


The only person who tried to do anything was a professor who was also a Holocaust survivor.

Maybe that was because he’d had first hand experience of the perils of passivity.

He did die in his attempt to do something about the situation. 

I don’t really see that it’s preferable to live through a situation like that at the cost of waiting patiently to see if you win the lottery of this guy not getting to you, and of knowing that lots of other people are dead because you were among the people w ho did absolutely nothing.

In the week that followed the Newtown shooting, the news kept reporting over and over and over again that mass shootings are crimes of opportunity, that these gunmen do not go where they expect to meet resistance.

Mike F suggested that this would be a good reason to limit the size of the magazines that can be sold–take that down to ten rounds per clip instead of thirty.   Maybe if he had to stop and load every few minutes,  it would slow him up, slow him down, or finish him earlier.

Other people suggested arming school teachers or putting armed guards in schools.   They were widely derided, but the suggestion was by no means stupid.

There’s a reason why the vast majority of these incidents take place in areas that have been publicly designated as “weapons free zones.”

And although I much prefer that second approach–which at least acknowledges the fact that in real life we sometimes have to act and can’t wait for the Properly Authorized Person to show up and sae us–

I wonder if the guns are the issue per se.

The problem, as I see it, is not that the teachers aren’t armed, but that they have been disarmed by being fed the notion that Waiting for Somebody in Authority should be their first response to virtually any situation.

Well into the 1950s, violence in heavily populated areas in this country was relatively rare.  Armed or not, if it’s one against 20, the chances are that somebody is going to be able to take you down–IF the vast majority of people in that space instinctively respond to an emergency by trying to take action.

That is, if almost everybody assumes that being an adult means acting when action is necessary.

What scares me is that we seem to be training this idea out of our children.  We tell them that if they get hit or threatened, they should just put up with it and tell a teacher, who is the only person authorized to act. 

We tell them going through proper channels is everything and acting on their own will only get them into trouble, even if they’re right.

We dwell on the risks of taking action and ignore the rewards–rewards that accrue not to the individual but to all of us. 

We tell them that we are doing this to make them “safe”–because “safe” seems to be the only legitimate goal–but in fact we are making them less safe by the day.

And then we wonder why so many of them can’t get up the initiative to do–

Much of anything.


Written by janeh

January 9th, 2013 at 9:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Ducks, Sitting'

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  1. You can’t have it both ways. I used to hear older people lament loss of the the old days when small-town teachers and religious leaders took on the responsibility of intervening with children who misbehaved in public even outside school and church. Mind you, they certainly agreed that there was abuse then, and it’s a good thing that there’s much less respect paid to authority figures today.

    But you can’t expect adults to intervene in violent attacks and simulteously expect that no authority should be respected. When that happens, the adult who intervenes to stop a fight in the street is likely to be told off obscenely or attacked as well.

    Every time there’s a change, there are negative as well as positive consequences, much as we’d like to think we can reduce one evil without losing something of value.


    9 Jan 13 at 10:08 am

  2. Cheryl, I’m going to disagree very strongly, and I think the other ex-service types will as well when they check in. Respect for authority has nothing to do with standing around doing nothing in a crisis. In fact “lack of initiative” will get you tossed out just about as fast as insubordination.

    Going passive demonstrates deference to authorities, but only when the authorities have given orders that one be passive. If we were paying less respect to authority figures, there should be even less passivity. Unfortunately, if respect for clergymen and elders has declined, deference to little tin gods–all too often part of the educational “system”–has increased. Those policemen watching a man drown were “only following orders,” not ignoring their superiors.

    It might be worth considering that our authority figures consider the odd massacre a decent trade-off for us continuing to defer to them, and not exercising initiative in ways they wouldn’t like. I understand the students at Virginia Tech “hid” under their desks while they were shot one by one. The places where unarmed students rushed armed attackers have had much lower casualties–but might be more distressing to our masters.

    People who’ve attacked a gunman barehanded probably aren’t much impressed when someone tells them they haven’t filled out all the blanks on the departmental form.


    9 Jan 13 at 12:02 pm

  3. I’ve heard of passive onlookers before. Google came up with

    Its labeled AP Psychology so I’m guessing its a text for US high school students. My problem in applying it is that I can understand the customers but not the behaviour of the store employees or the manager.


    9 Jan 13 at 1:38 pm

  4. After 9/11, we learned that passivity in the face of hijackers or violence on planes was fatal, and since then, passengers have weighed in actively. Just last week I read something about a drunk and disorderly guy being duct taped to his seat by staff and passengers until he could be landed.

    Like JD, I can’t imagine a corporate retail chain that doesn’t have training for managers and staff in how to respond in an emergency, just to cover their liability/asses if nothing else. It doesn’t seem like in this case anyone even CALLED for someone authorized to help, or 911. Which is inexplicable to me, as is the passivity of the other customers. They have no authority to look to in an emergency situation. Maybe it has to do with perceived danger to oneself. On a plane, you’ve got a stake in the behavior of others. If the store is on fire, you need to take action to save yourself. If a kid is under a box, there’s no danger to YOU unless you get involved.

    Which says something really terrible about the people who were present that day. Given experience in past emergencies, I know that’s not how I respond. I step up and help, until actually pushed aside by the EMTs. I’d hope the majority of my fellow citizens would do the same. If not, shame on them.


    9 Jan 13 at 2:50 pm

  5. Gosh ! I can’t imagine anyone just waiting to be told what to do in an emergency situation ! Anytime I’ve encountered an auto accident, numerous people are ready and willing to save lives before emergency crews arrive. There will be people to divert traffic around the accident site , people to triage injuries etc. Just doing noting is so cowardly …maybe they are waiting for Channel 2 news to tell them what to do ????
    I’m lucky that I have always encountered people in an emergency situation who can both act and think at the same time.
    I’m famous for standing up to irate parents who have smacked their kids around at the grocery store while screaming obscenities at their crying , terrified children … I calmly say : Sir or Maam .. I think you are out of control …how can I help ? So far I have done this four times and haven’t been shot but have had their anger turned on me instead of the child.Usually by this time a store manager or clerk will have intervened. I also have waited outside the stores and copied license plate numbers to turn into CPS. Children must be protected !!!!! And I’m 5’11” and weigh 200 pounds and look like the Queen of Amazons so I reckon I can intimidate cowards a wee bit…plus I am a retired nurse with training on how to take down armed and unarmed bullies.
    I would like to think that the majority of human kind will act without being told what to do …maybe I’ll start rolls of duct tape in my bag :)


    9 Jan 13 at 4:10 pm

  6. I hate to be critical of Jane but I don’t trust stories that come from Facebook!

    The story about police watching someone drown in the ocean bothers me in another way. Saving someone in a swimming pool is easy even if you are only a moderate swimmer. Australia has a lot of ocean beaches and its well known that ocean rescues are difficult because of surf, waves and rip currents. A person trying it without the specialized training may end up needing rescuing himself!


    9 Jan 13 at 6:46 pm

  7. John, this is not one of _those_ Facebook stories. It has a credible source, well known to us.

    If I remember correctly, the British story about the inaction of the “rescue” party was, iirc, about someone who fell into some sort of old well or mineshaft. All it would have taken to save the person was for one of the rescuers to be lowered down on a rope, with ample numbers there to do it safely. But they were forbidden by their superiors to attempt a rescue because it would supposedly have breached the Health and Safety laws.

    Here in Australia the lifeguards patrol areas of beaches marked with red and yellow flags. You swim outside the flagged area at your own risk. If you get into trouble, you may be lucky enough to be seen and rescued, but don’t count on it, and if you happen to be injured badly you’ll have no legal comeback against the lifeguards or the beach controlling authority.


    10 Jan 13 at 3:08 am

  8. When I took my first CPR and first-aid courses in the late 1990s, I clearly remember how shocked I was when they trained us to expect exactly this reaction in a real emergency. It’s called the bystander effect. We were told to take control and find someone to call 911 and to tell that person what to say. I can’t speak to the behavior reported of officials in the stories above, but the bystander effect is well-known and well-documented. You can get a lot of angles on it if you google it, but it’s taught in basic introduction to psychology courses. Psychology Today has a brief entry on it: http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/bystander-effect


    19 Jan 13 at 9:22 pm

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