Belmont Club

The Good Samaritan

Glenn Reynolds is in full cry over what he calls the decline in societal “standards”. A judge ruled that all that subway employees had to do if they witnessed a crime in progress was to fill out an electronic form — call the police. Then they could go back to their regular duties.



A Queens judge ruled yesterday that subway employees do not have to do anything but pick up their phones if they see a crime — as he threw out a suit against the MTA and two workers who did nothing more to stop a rape.

A conductor saw the rape from the window on his train, and a station agent in the booth witnessed a screaming woman being dragged down a staircase inside the desolate 21st Street station of the G line. But neither one left the safety of their assigned posts to help her.

In a previous day, in a different culture, such men would have been afraid of being called cowards for failing to help a woman under such circumstances. Nowadays, they’re probably proud of acting “sensibly.” (For the record, the story says their names are Harmodio Cruz and John Koort.) And in a different world, Judge Kevin Kerrigan would have been ashamed to describe picking up a phone as “prompt and decisive action.” But he probably thinks it is.

Eric Holder talked about a “nation of cowards.” This is the real thing.

UPDATE: Reader Pierre Honeyman writes:

I agree with you, in principle, about cowardly men not acting to help people who need it, but allowing lawsuits to succeed in cases such as the one cited is a slippery slope. Having a legal principle that requires action, rather than the “Good Samaritan” laws which prevent punishing it, seems to me to be a rather slippery slope. As a law professor you surely know more about what kinds of legal precedents would be set by successful lawsuits of this nature, and I could very well be wrong, but it just seems wrong, somehow, to be able to sue someone who didn’t help you. I don’t think I’m comfortable with forcing people to consider legal hazard over physical hazard. I use that to argue for self-defense, including concealed carry, and the same argument applies here.

Well, actually I believe that traditionally common carriers — which I think the subway system would be — were required to protect against the foreseeable criminal acts of third parties, and I’d say a rape in a subway station is foreseeable. But standards tend to slip when it’s the government, for some reason. My point, however, was not about litigation, but about culture.


A friend of mine who grew up on a farm observed that  many people don’t really know — or prefer not to know — where their food comes from. Back when people caught and cleaned fish, slaughtered and plucked chickens the provenance of dinner was clear. Today some people object to seeing fish heads, chicken feet, etc because it disturbs them. But give it to them breaded or in fillets, or smothered in sauce, or better yet as nuggets and they’ll happily wolf them down. I responded to that observation by saying that an equal number didn’t know where their safety came from either. Just like food at the supermarket, safety was presumed to be ‘just there’, like it got delivered through the water pipes.  So in the same manner that when we find we’re out of food, we call for pizza delivery, the idea of many moderns is that if a man finds himself out of safety we should just make a call to the police and have them take care of it.

We’ve forgotten that the reason we’re fed — and the only reason we are fed —  is through a process where cows fart and farmers plough. There’s carbon everywhere. It’s rarely recalled that the reason al-Qaeda isn’t roaming around the streets cutting people’s throats isn’t because we’ve appealed to their better natures — some people have no better natures — but because certain individuals are doing the equivalent of what we pay workers in the slaughterhouse, fishery or farm to do: perform the dirty work.  Deep down we know this. We just don’t want to be reminded of it. And just as people are upset about seeing fish heads at the dinner table, nobody likes to be reminded that what it takes to keep America safe from the bad guys.  Just the fillets please, don’t bother about the details.


A few posts ago, I recounted the story of how police in Britain prevented neighbors from attempting to rescue a family burning to death in their homes as they were screaming for assistance. It looks as if as in most things, we are determined to imitate sophisticated Europe.  And yet there’s this disquiet. At some level the man who goes back to doing the crossword puzzle after calling in a rape in progress within a stairwell he is observing, fully assured that he has ‘followed the process’ is dimly aware of self-deception; disturbed by the niggling realization that one day a man might come up to him as he’s trying to figure out what four letter word starts with “d” and ends with “e” and start to take him apart with a knife. Then someone else can pass him by while he’s screaming, making a phone call to somewhere.

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