Naysayers will insist that the heavy hand of law is not the answer and that we should use education to inspire folks to give enough of a damn about a 15-year-old girl being gang raped, we won’t need the threat of incarceration to compel someone to call 911. I hope that day comes – though I’m not optimistic. In the meantime, the power of law can be a nice kick in the pants; a moral jumpstart if you will – on our pathway to civility.
A Boston doctor was recently attacked by a knife-wielding patient. Around the same time, a 15 year-old girl in California was gang-raped by four young men. Both crimes were witnessed by multiple bystanders. Their responses could not have been more different.
An off-duty security guard immediately got involved in the Boston case. He shot the assailant and saved the doctor’s life. In California, as many as 20 bystanders did absolutely nothing to help for more than two hours as one guy after the next brutalized the girl. Instead, they used cell phones to take pictures and video of the crime.
Experts have yet to explain such disparate reactions. Some say bystanders do nothing simply because they’re afraid. Others say the hero urge makes onlookers extra eager to jump in.
Maybe it’s the lack of uniformity in legal ramifications for acting vs. non-acting that explains why people have such extreme responses at both ends of the spectrum.
In California, it’s not a crime to fail to report a crime – unless the victim is a child younger than 15.
In Massachusetts, it IS a crime for a witness to observe and not report certain felonies, including rape and murder.
That it’s a crime to do nothing in one state and not the other may have some bearing on why a man in Boston was so quick to act, while so many people in California stood passively by.
At base, the criminal law tends to draw a line at inaction with a preference for punishing only affirmative behavior, not the absence of conduct.
But philosophically, it’s silly to promote the idea that law doesn’t MAKE people do the morally right thing, even in criminal matters. Negligent homicide is often about the failure to act – as when extreme religious beliefs cause parents not to obtain life-saving medical care for their children.
The government also forces us to pay taxes because even the most benevolent people will give only to the extent compelled by law.
If we can agree that the common good sometimes requires laws to force people to act – why not have laws that compel bystanders to help prevent violent crime?
I’m not saying people should take a bullet in gang crossfire. Only that they should call police when they see a serious crime in action. Hardly insulting to liberty, it better ensures freedom for law-abiding citizens who otherwise hide in their homes, fearful of the thugs and “no-snitch” bullies who command a code of silence to preserve THEIR freedom.
Some argue that forced reporting laws won’t work because onlookers will fear being charged if they don’t report quickly enough. But if people are already doing nothing, as the California case illustrates, then a mandate can’t make things worse – and there’s a good chance it will help because criminals will worry that they can’t control the silence of witnesses. Fear of lawsuits for not being a “fast enough” caller can easily be handled by enactment of a good Samaritan immunity statute.
Maybe the guy who saved the doctor’s life in Boston had no idea about the forced reporting law in Massachusetts. But that doesn’t mean the law didn’t inspire him. It’s hard to know what makes people do things – but laws are designed to affect human behavior in ways that are sometimes hard to measure. Laws not only command or forbid specific behavior, they disseminate sentiments about the things we value. In other words, it matters that lawmakers reduce to writing that we want bystanders to help law enforcement prevent serious violence.
Naysayers will insist that the heavy hand of law is not the answer and that we should use education to inspire folks to give enough of a damn about a 15-year-old girl being gang raped, we won’t need the threat of incarceration to compel someone to call 911.
I hope that day comes – though I’m not optimistic. In the meantime, the power of law can be a nice kick in the pants; a moral jumpstart if you will – on our pathway to civility.
Wendy Murphy is a leading victims rights advocate and nationally recognized television legal analyst. She is an adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston. She can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of her columns at The Daily Beast.
The Patriot Ledger