My father was on a death march through Yugoslavia when liberated by Tito’s partisans in November 1944. My mother was in a courtyard in Budapest waiting to be executed by a firing squad, when Jewish resistance fighters dressed as Arrow Cross policemen intervened and saved her life. My paternal grandparents were murdered in the gas chamber at Auschwitz on May 26, 1944.
Nazi extermination of Jews and others would not have succeeded without the complicity of bystanders in Germany and elsewhere in occupied Europe. Their failure to act facilitated the actions of Hitler, Eichmann and Himmler.
The Holocaust is neither the first nor last time bystanders have stood by, complicit in the actions of the perpetrator; silent in the face of victim distress. In the current political and social culture there is a collective need to act against hatred and extremism from left and right alike. There is an absolute need to stop enabling dividers and hate mongerers. Complicity is passivity in the face of potential danger to the other. The bystander is one who stands by and chooses not to act. The combination of complicity and bystanders is deadly. It directly contributes to victim peril.
Bystander complicity is a reality in daily life. It can have horrific consequences.
Recently, in Detroit bystanders watched a 3 year-old child flail and drown in the water. They filmed the event. Not one called for help. Those bystanders made two decisions: to use their Smart phones to film a drowning child and not to dial 911. Fortunately, one person jumped into the water saving the child. Tragically, an adult who was with the child and did not know how to swim drowned.
On June 23, 2013, Brandon Vandenburg, and two other male students sodomized and raped an unconscious Vanderbilt female student in his dorm room. When Brandenburg shook his roommate, Mack Prioleau, by the shoulder suggesting he partake in the rape, Priloux—-by his own account—feigned sleep because he was too uncomfortable. At some point in the night, Priooleau got up from his bed, saw the woman and went to sleep in another dorm room.
On May 25, 1997 David Cash watched his friend Jeremy Stromeyer rape seven-year old Sherrice Iverson in a Las Vegas bathroom stall. Cash walked out of the bathroom. Stromeyer strangled the child to death. Stromeyer was sentenced to life imprisonment. Cash graduated from UC Berkeley and has had a successful professional career. As he made clear in a 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley, he has no remorse telling Bradley, “hey, I didn’t know her.”
Those filming the child drowning, Cash, and Prioleau are all bystanders. All had the clear, unquestioned ability to help prevent egregious harm to innocent, vulnerable individuals in profound peril. They all chose not to act.
It is a criminal act best defined as the crime of non-intervention. I believe bystanders have an obligation to intervene predicated on two conditions: victim peril is obvious and the bystander has the capability to act. The requirement to act is met by alerting first responders; actual physical intervention should not be mandated by law.
Some bystanders refuse to be complicit.
They take responsibility to protect vulnerable victims, sometimes at great risk to themselves. Very recently, a rightwing career felon verbally assaulted two women—one wearing a hijab—on a Portland train with what was characterized by a witness as “hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions.” As two male onlookers tried to calm the assailant, he stabbed them to death and seriously wounded another nearby man.
That some of us take action, however, does not —-and must not—-provide “cover” or justification for those who fail to act. The fact some choose to intervene does not minimize the costs resulting from non-intervention of the majority of the polity. This is all the more true in today’s hyper-partisan climate. Standing against politicized bullying, lies, misinformation, fake news, hate speech, threats and violence is essential. There is no choice.
How individuals, along with leaders and their constituents, are engaging with those with whom they disagree is disconcerting and distressing. I experienced this first-hand when the neo-Nazi website, “Daily Stormer”, hosted death threats against me in response to an op-ed I wrote regarding free speech in an age of hatred. I am hardly the first nor the last to be subjected to threats conjuring up images of trains and Auschwitz.
The present political arena is, to say the least, most unpleasant. However, if there is one lesson history compellingly—and tragically—teaches us it is that the sounds of hatred and violence cannot rule the airwaves. They must be responded to. Forcefully, consistently and loudly. This is not the time for the sounds of silence.
Bystander non-intervention benefits the perpetrator; passivity and complicity are a toxic combination. Engagement is essential; passivity must not be tolerated. The risks are too great. Again.
The author’s most recent book, The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust, is available now.
Image: Natalie Behring/Getty