Several months ago I heard a couple having an argument on my street at around 1:30 am. The man sounded pissed and belligerent and the woman sounded desperate and hysterical. In other words, while I wasn't able to make out the words the tone of the argument was troubling. When the man's voice became louder and more threatening I decided that it was time to call 911. If it really was just a verbal argument the cops would simply tell them to lower their volume and if I was right...well then the cops would hopefully take care of that too. I had only been on the line with the 911 dispatcher for about 30 seconds before the woman started screaming. I was SERIOUSLY tempted to run downstairs with a butcher knife to see if I could help but the 911 dispatcher was now peppering me with questions that I needed to answer and since I had called 911 from my landline I couldn't leave my place without disconnecting. The police were there in minutes and I heard them tell the man to get down on the ground and I sent up a quick prayer that the woman wasn't too badly injured. As I hung up the phone I wondered if any of my neighbors had called 911 too. I figured some of them must have. After all, I live in a "nice," neighborhood.
Flash forward to this last Sunday. A friend of mine's husband (who, for the purposes of this story we'll call Hero) went hiking up a very popular hiking trail. He reached the vista point where many other hikers were milling around at which point a woman casually approached him and asked in a rather calm, off-handed manner if he could look at something and tell her if it seemed "right." He glanced down the hill where she was pointing and he saw two men sitting around a teenage girl who appeared to be unconscious. Her bra was pushed up to her chin and her pants were down to her ankles. The guys seemed to be taking turns feeling her up. The woman who approached Hero explained that she and her friend had been watching this for "quite a while," and they just kept "doing stuff to her." Hero then jumped over the fence that was supposed to keep everyone on the path, scaled down the hill, got to the scene and confronted the two guys (who he could now see were getting high on crack). This led to his having to actually get in a fight with the two guys (the bruises now on Hero's face are quite obviously a badge of honor). At this point everyone on the vista was watching and someone finally did call 911. The police came and handcuffed the perpetrators and Hero until the witnesses collaborated Hero's story and the police let him go and hauled the two guys in. A helicopter airlifted the girl (who still hadn't regained consciousness) to a hospital. The woman who had originally pointed the scene out to Hero took off with her friend before the police got there.
So my friend's hubby definitely saved the day and deserves all the praise and adulation that has been heaped on him since. But WTF was up with the witnesses who SAW what was going on but didn't call the police? Like I said, this took place along a popular hiking trail in the middle of the friggin' day. No one thought, "Hmm, undressed teen not moving and being molested...maybe I should whip out my cell phone?" Even if you weren't sure if she was really unconscious, even if you mistook her for being older, even if you thought there was a slight chance that she was consenting...isn't it better to be safe than sorry? Have we really become a society of people who will eagerly scream about the broadest political issues but won't actually help a single individual in need? Or did everyone assume someone else would call?
Obviously that was an extreme example of a troubling phenomenon. But I do think we tend to be too hesitant to dial 911 these days and too frequently we DO assume someone else will do it for us. As much as I hate to admit this I've been guilty of that too. About 6 months ago I was driving up to the Bay Area and when I got a little past Santa Barbara I saw that a few of the trees on the side of Highway 101 were on fire. It wasn't a small flame and I did think...should I call the fire department? But my bluetooth had just died, I wasn't exactly sure of my location and furthermore it was right before rush hour which meant that while traffic was moving it was still significant. With trees blazing along a freeway full of cars...well, surely someone who DID know our exact location would call the fire department. I figured they were probably on their way already. 15-20 minutes later I heard it announced on the radio that a fire had JUST been reported and the fire fighters were just now arriving at the scene. I remember being shocked. It was just being reported?! How could no one have dialed 911?!
Except I was one of the people who didn't dial. It didn't turn into one of California's notorious wild fires (thank God) but I'll never make that mistake again. Whenever I see a situation that is in need of emergency workers I will plug those three little numbers into my phone. I will never assume that someone else will do what I should be doing. I hope all of you will do the same. Don't sit around second guessing yourself until it's too late and the damage is irreparable. Because whether your worried about "snitching" or just looking stupid, to be a passive bystander is to be a lesser human being. We owe it to ourselves and to our communities to be better than that.
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