Thinking About Our Duty of Care

June 20, 2007 at 4:29 am (Uncategorized)

When I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, I remember reading something about America’s ‘Good Samaritan’ law. From memory, the law was introduced in response to a woman’s cries for help going unheeded. Nobody came to her rescue. Nobody tried to intervene. Neighbours ignored her screams.

It’s a horrible thought. The idea of being a victim of violent crime, of a potentially fatal violent crime, is bad enough. The idea of being within hearing distance of other members of the community whilst the crime is being committed, and having that community come over all deaf, dumb and blind, is really a good deal worse. I remember when I was little, I was taught never to yell “HELP!” because people were less likely to get involved in anything perceived to be a personal dispute. I was taught to yell “FIRE!” because people might be more inclined to listen if they thought they or their property were also under threat. As crazy as it might seem now, it’s one of those lessons from childhood I have never forgotten, like looking both ways before crossing the road. It was drummed into me that often, and I think if push ever came to shove, and boy I hope it never does, I’d probably still, to this day, yell “FIRE!”

But can we really legislate and then police a law that says people, perfect strangers and law-abiding citizens minding their own affair, have to get involved? I just don’t know. I’ve always had mixed feelings about this area of ethics. I think it’s a really tough call. I would certainly call the police if I heard something scary. I would like to think I would do something quickly and to the best of my ability to help anyone in trouble. I would like to think I would get help (I don’t carry a weapon of any kind, and I have pretty limited upper-body strength, so I don’t think I’d be much help physically trying to break up a fight) in those situations where I was not equipped to directly provide that assistance myself.

Brendan Keilar, 43, a married father of three, was on his way to work in Melbourne Monday morning when he happened across a man and a woman engaged in some kind of aggressive dispute. Mr Keilar, a solicitor, tried to intervene in order to help the woman, a perfect stranger, and the other man shot him dead. Another passerby, a 25 year old male Dutch tourist, was also shot whilst trying to help, as was the woman herself.

What should they have done? What should they have done? Mr Keilar did a brave and honorable thing. I’m sure his family is rightly very proud of him. He came to a woman’s aid without a thought for his personal safety. In that split second, he made a decision that it was the right thing to do. It’s grossly unfair that it cost him his life, but unfortunately it doesn’t change the awful fact that it did. Had he kept walking…but he didn’t. He stopped to help.

I always get frightened when Llew and I are out and someone starts abusing us as we walk by. I get frightened because I don’t know that person, and I don’t know whether or not they’re armed, or whether or not they’re dangerous, or whether or not they’re in full possession of their faculties. I find it really scary. But I also find Llew’s reaction scary. I can practically FEEL the adrenaline surge through his shirt. I can feel his inability to do as I do, which is meekly cower and drop my gaze in the hope of being allowed to safely pass. Llew, meanwhile, seems to grow in stature by my side, swelling with an instinctive readiness to defend us both if necessary. You would think this would all make me feel safe and secure. It doesn’t. It makes me afraid. I’m always afraid he will stop and say something to the wrong person. And I’m always afraid he might do it when I’m not there to pull him away by the arm, saying “Just ignore him, let’s keep walking, come on, just ignore him” all the while.

We do have a duty of care to our fellow citizens. I do believe that. But how far does that duty go? Would Mr Keilar have fulfilled his duty of care to that woman on Monday if he had used his mobile phone to call the police instead of entering the argument himself? I think so. I do think so. After all, we also all have a duty of care to our families and loved ones. But I’ve seen men react in similar situations, and I think it is a lot less natural for them to hang back than it is for them to get in there and try to break it up. And it’s a split second thing. Nobody knows how they will react in that kind of situation until is thrust upon them. I think it’s utterly terrible that Mr Keilar died, it’s a lousy, very depressing result for a good deed, and I guess all I’m really saying is be careful, and be careful even or especially when you’re being good.

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