“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Always look for the helpers. You will always find people helping.’”
My sister found this nugget of advice from American television host Fred Rogers after we read the news about a despicable incident that took place in Gozo last week.
An outraged bystander took to Facebook to describe what happened when a fight in a bar degenerated into mob violence. Fifteen or more men attacked a man to the cheers of onlookers, “beating the pulp out of him relentlessly”. Then, one ‘hero’ punched the victim and threw him into the sea, heedless of whether he could swim or not.
By the standards of any civilised society, which we pride ourselves to be, such behaviour is abhorrent, regardless of the initial reason for the argument. That the victim was Somali makes it even worse because the thuggery reeks unforgivably of racism.
The man who wrote the Facebook post is certain of that. This was no mere pub brawl. It was a display of the worst that human beings are capable of: turning on another because we perceive him to be different and defenceless.
Images come to mind of supremacist violence in the US not so many years ago, when people were lynched just because they were black.
That the shocking episode in Gozo did not have an infinitely more tragic ending is thanks to the ‘helpers’. The man who wrote on Facebook was one.
He told me that, together with his friends, he pulled the victim out of the water and stopped the ‘hero’ from throwing him in again. A few others helped, too. They called the police, calmed the victim and took him to hospital.
Just as the mob exemplified the shabbiest of human tendencies, the helpers brought out the best
As Andrew Azzopardi wrote in this newspaper a few days ago, what happened is a reality check. What does it say about us as a society and the way we treat those whom we judge to be different? What would I have done if I were on the scene?
Asking myself this question, I remembered Good Friday services, when we contemplate where we would have stood in the crowd that watched the humiliation, torture and execution of Jesus. I would not have egged on the wrongdoers, I would not have been indifferent but, perhaps, I would have been afraid to speak up.
Fear to stick your neck out in such an ugly situation is normal. The man who wrote on Facebook said that although he and his friends wanted to intervene earlier, “what was scary was that there were 100 people cheering them on”.
In the end, they did their utmost and their actions had a decisive impact. “When we intervened, the mood changed. When they saw someone sticking up for this guy, no more heroics.”
If they had not intervened, who knows what might have happened?
Just as the mob exemplified the shabbiest of human tendencies, the helpers brought out the best.
The man who wrote the post told me he acted out of “human to human” considerations because he could not bear to witness the dignity of another person so degraded and broken down.
“I wanted to show him we are not all like that.”
We are not all like that. And we need to remember that our actions to take a stand, or not, can have hugely significant consequences.
This is good news not only for the strangers in our midst but for each one of us because, if we ever happen to be alone in a tight place (not so hard to contemplate), we would be searching for someone to help.
To end with Fred Rogers: “If you look for the helpers, you will know there is hope.”
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