The Problem With Doing Nothing

Five young people don't know and couldn't care either

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One of my earliest and most haunting memories is of a large man ramming a woman’s head into an elevator door. I’m not entirely sure how old I was — some age between my first steps and my first visit from the tooth fairy.

I was spending the day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in my own little world mystified by the jellyfishes and other sea creatures.

Then, on the other side of the aquarium, I saw a woman with puffy hair wearing a skirt and high heels. She was running for the elevator, her heels clacking against the polished concrete floor. At first this didn’t seem unusual — people run towards elevators all the time. I thought she was merely trying to catch the elevator before the door closed, but then I realized the door was already shut — she was rushing towards a dead end. That’s when I noticed the large man, dressed in all black, with long unkept hair chasing after her.

The woman stumbled to a stop at the elevator and frantically tapped the call button as the man closed in on her. In a flash I saw the man grab her by the hair and yank her head back as if he was going to drag her away. She screamed. Then in a powerful burst of belligerent force, he shoved her body forward, throwing her head and his entire body weight into the stainless steel door.

I watched in horror — although I’m not sure I knew exactly what horror felt like at the time. It was, nonetheless, a scary feeling — a mixture of shock, terror, and confusion, which I had never experienced before. I simply couldn’t wrap my developing mind around what I was witnessing.

I had never seen a man hit a woman, at least not in person. But I remember thinking that it looked like one of the wrestling matches I watched on TV — a large man throwing another body into an immovable object. I had also watched movies featuring domestic violence, even at my young age, and I often wondered what I was watching; it was so far removed from my upbringing.

My parents divorced early in my childhood, and while they may have had verbal arguments, they never became violent. Conversely, their bodies always seemed to drift farther apart when they argued, not collide like the man at the aquarium who grabbed the woman, presumably his wife or girlfriend, by the hair.

As I stared on, the guy just kept grabbing the woman’s head and smashing it into the elevator bank. After the first blow the woman stopped using her hands to try to fight off her attacker, and instead, placed them in front of her face in an attempt to lighten the trauma to her head.

Just as I had wondered why Michael Corleone slapped around his wife, Kay, in The Godfather (yes, I watched the movie as a kid) I wondered why the man with unkept hair was assaulting the woman at the aquarium. Why was such a large man assaulting such a small woman? And why in such a crowded place? Neither question matters — there’s no justification for them — although as a child these were things I wanted to ask.

The sad truth is that these types of assaults have become commonplace in our society, some people don’t even flinch at the mention of them. And while this example may seem like an aberration from the social justice that so many of us rely on for safety and comfort, I fear that probably isn’t the case. This kind of thing happens fairly frequently. I don’t have stats, but these incidents are not hard to find. A simple Google search relating to people being beaten in public will show headlines like “Philadelphia Woman Beaten in Public as Crowd Watches,” or “Teen Brutally Beaten as Others Watched.”

The assault at the aquarium was in the early 1990s, before cell phones became ubiquitous and the Internet changed the way horrifying events were disseminated throughout the world.

Nevertheless, I still, more than twenty years later, can’t get over how an aquarium full of people saw a woman being beaten by a large man and did nothing. That is, except for those who appeared to feel threatened; those people just left — out of sight, out of mind. But the group I was with didn’t leave. The chaperone seemed to pretend not to see what was happening. When I asked her about it, she looked as confused and frightened as I was. But ultimately she did nothing.

I was shocked at how the incident seemed almost normal. The normalcy that the crowd maintained was alarming. Nobody did anything to stop the assault, and more alarmingly, hardly anyone even acknowledged it was happening. It was as if this hideous scene had been cut out of some misogynistic movie and pasted into a normal day at the aquarium. Looking back I almost wonder if it was part of an actual movie set with everyone besides the couple playing extras in the film. That’s how surreal it was. But when I think really hard I remember that would have been impossible. There were no cameras, no director, no one I was with was an extra; but there was a woman with a badly beaten face who eventually broke free of the man’s onslaught.

The victim’s heels frantically clacked away from the elevator, and the man, as a concerned mother finally broke character and acknowledged what was happening. She shielded her child from the beaten woman and her attacker. Then the man — perhaps realizing for the first time that, despite the crowd’s best poker face, people had seen him commit a crime — nonchalantly walked away pretending as if nothing happened, which, now that I think about it, raises another issue. This man knew nobody was coming for him, otherwise he would of ran and hid. Maybe he was a complete idiot, sure, and in a Just world the police would have converged on him within minutes, but that day it wasn’t a Just world. That man was stupid and arrogant enough to attack a woman with at least a hundred people watching and then pretend it never happened, but as far as I’m concerned, everyone who saw the incident — except for the victim and the children who didn’t know what to do — were complicit in the crime.

The man eventually slipped out a side door and I assumed he was never arrested. But before he left I watched him closely — a primal fear and visceral reaction came over me. I was afraid he was going to attack someone else, maybe me — a defenseless young boy. But he didn’t come near me. Instead he approached another young boy. He breezily strolled up to the boy and his mom, both appeared unaware of what the man had just done. He then padded the boy on his head.

The irony that the same hands which had severely beaten a woman not five minutes before were now gently embracing a young boy’s head was entirely lost on my undeveloped mind at the time. Now it’s not. Now the irony makes me sick. I just hope that boy — my peer — didn’t see the man assault the woman and take the head pad as some twisted sort of encouragement to commit similar atrocities as he grew older. That is, after all, how these things happen. They are a result of a behavioral contagion and the corruption of pristine minds. Behavior like this is not innate, it’s observed and it’s emulated. If everyone in the aquarium that day, particularly every child, knew that what they had seen was wrong and that the attacker would not only be held accountable for his actions, but would be justly and severely punished for them, that would be a portion of the population that would, at the very least, be less likely to commit such an act themselves. If every child who ever saw a family member, or even a stranger being beaten, knew the gravity of the situation and knew that there are few acts worse than domestic violence, then that might cause a ripple effect throughout the population. I hope, at some point in my lifetime, it does.

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7 thoughts on “The Problem With Doing Nothing”

  1. How terrible and ridiculous that no one did anything! It should have ended with him being hauled away in hand cuffs! Sometimes I just get disgusted with adults who don’t have the audacity to do what’s right and help, even if it is scary. If enough people had approached him, together, at least it would have shown the example you should have seen to counteract the atrocious scene. I wasn’t always okay with my father getting personally involved in situations like this when I was younger but now, knowing this could go on with no one doing anything, makes me proud and grateful he did and would have if he’d been there!!

    1. I agree it’s pretty ridiculous. I think it probably would have gone down differently had it happened today. I imagine videos of it would be all over social media right now. So even if the crowd did nothing at least there would be proof.

  2. The “bystander effect” is real … and unfortunate. The more witnesses there are to an incident, the less likely anyone is to intervene — because they assume someone else will “take care of it.” The murder of Kitty Genovese is the prime example, in which more than a dozen people say they heard her screams for help, or saw her being attacked, and just closed their drapes or turned up the TV.

    I’ve had it happen in my own life, too — but nowhere near as extreme a case as what you describe or (obviously) being murdered. So, I know how willing people are to ignore a person in the midst of a medical emergency happening right in front of them.

    Bottom line, though, is that a long time ago I decided I would not be that bystander who let other people deal with things. I’ve walked up to a couple where the man was slapping the woman around and asked if the woman wanted to come with me to the police station — in the days before cell phones, this was the best you could do. My husband and I intervened when a man was severely beating a toddler at Walt Disney World because the child had “embarrassed him” by crying on the shuttle bus because he was overtired and overstimulated.

    It astonishes me that people are willing to ignore these sorts of behaviors under the rubric of “it’s none of my business.” Abuse of our fellow beings is everyone’s business.

  3. I cannot begin to imagine which was more traumatizing, watching her being beaten, or watching others do nothing. I can only imagine how unsafe a small child must have felt at that very moment. I could write for days on this very topic, but I’ll stop here and end by saying I’m so, so sorry that that happened to you because no part of it should happen to anyone, ever.

    1. Thanks! Honestly I was so young I don’t really feel traumatized, but definitely sad and angry for the woman and the implications it has on humanity. I wish people didn’t do this crap to each other. Thank you for reading the piece!

  4. Oh, how it makes me mad to see someone getting hurt (physically and/ or verbally) and no one reacting.
    Some of my blog posts comment on that as well.
    It is not shocking to me to see such behavior in today’s world, but in the 90s? In the early 2000s, I witnessed a guy spank a kid for misbehaving and he was in cuffs before I could blink.
    However, I do have to say that I was positively surprised just the other day by witnessing a verbal altercation on a bus, and a random person chiming in and standing up for the victim. The attacker was outnumbered and just shut up.

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