Once upon a time, the New Yorker magazine asked, What was everyone else on the platform (where a man from Queens was pushed over the edge then struck by a train) doing? Later in the piece they mentioned Wesley Autrey, who saved a man having a seizure from being mowed down by another train. While the editorial was mainly to call attention to spectators, who mostly used to “stand and gawk…Now, apparently, we point and shoot,” they missed something crucial.
Autrey was a Navy veteran. All branches of the service demand extensive training in how to overcome the feeling that one is fearful for one’s safety and frozen in shock, and what actions to take instead. While I have not had the Navy’s training, in thirty-plus years with the Chicago Police Department I have been in my share of hair-raising scrapes and learned one crucial point: people who can be effective heroes learn to go toward trouble with an instinct to right it.
British Girl Guides and others daily beat back fear and struggled in myriad ways through World War II. I always sought to prepare my Girl Scouts for trouble, beginning with First Aid and teambuilding.
For good or ill, not everyone has been trained to fight, or how to react appropriately, and not everyone can overcome the flight-or-freeze impulse. Let’s note this is not the same as those safe in their snug apartments, who, on hearing Kitty Genovese scream, did not even summon help. An onrushing train will put even the most stout heart in fear of mortal peril; watching in horror in that case was likely a healthy, instinctive safety mechanism.
Those who have grown accustomed to pointing their cameras and clicking pictures extensively have, regrettably, given themselves a new impulse. Doubtless many New Yorkers were following that very thoughtlessness on that sad day on the subway. Running to the scene of the tragedy and taking pictures rather than offering assistance is always inexcusable; it demonstrates how badly they need basic training of the kind offered by the Scouts, the Red Cross, and related groups.
Let those prone to gawk put away their devices and sign up post haste.