time that we all 'interfered' more
We need to take more responsbility for our communities.
Why did he do it? Why is it so rare for people to help a stranger
in distress? These were some of the questions many of us asked when
we heard about the death of Tom Grant, a young university student
who was stabbed in the heart after intervening in an argument on
a train. In a world where acts of anti-social behaviour frequently
go unchallenged, Tom's behaviour strikes us as not only brave but,
sadly, as also very rare.
All too often, commuters look away and pretend not to notice acts
of intimidation directed at other passengers. Rowdy teenagers and
aggressive youngsters know that they have little to fear from their
elders. Indeed, anyone who attempts to stand up and question such
conduct can expect little support from the public. We are expected
not to interfere and we are unlikely to be criticised for turning
our backs on those who need our help.
The reluctance to interfere also blights the relationship between
adults and children. Adults are reluctant to intervene when children
misbehave. They also feel awkward and impotent when they see a child
who is in trouble. Many adults believe that their attempt to reassure
a distraught youngster could be misinterpreted by a suspicious parent.
Recently, an inquest into the tragic death of a two-year old girl
heard how a bricklayer drove past the infant as she walked through
her village. He did not stop, he explained, because he feared that
people would think he was trying to abduct her. "She wasn't
walking in a straight line,'' he noted before adding that, "she
was tottering and I kept thinking, 'should I go back?'." Minutes
later, the little girl drowned in her garden pool. This tragedy
is in part a consequence of a culture that encourages us not to
Informal rules about civic responsibility provide the foundation
for relations of trust and help clarify the terms on which people
relate to one another. Throughout history, such informal rules served
to contain anti-social behaviour. Such rules provide adults with
authority to intervene and stop young people from misbehaving. Unspoken
assumptions about the inappropriate use of foul language or intolerance
towards threatening behaviour can help push delinquent activities
to the margins.
Such rules can also transmit expectations of mutual solidarity
and support. Individuals who, when threatened, can draw upon a network
of support, feel very differently to those who are forced to deal
with such problems on their own. Unfortunately today we are confused
about the rules. We need to gain clarity about them very quickly.
But in the end we may also have to stand up and be counted. That
is why we need to affirm and promote the behaviour of the young
man who died answering in the affirmative the question: Am I my
brother's keeper? We need more people to emulate Tom Grant and take
responsibility for the welfare of their communities. Solidarity
can not exist without people prepared to "interfere".
published in the Daily Telegraph, 4 June 2006