Few people like to think of themselves as bystanders to crimes of violence. We fondly imagine we will intervene if we see someone being mugged or assaulted, will defend our property from burglars, and generally protect those unable to defend themselves. This widespread but mistaken belief has been in evidence since this appalling incident on a Melbourne bus on November 11.
We imagine that we would not passively stand by like people on the bus, or perhaps may even be able to do more than Mike Nayna, the man who shot the original footage, and who produced the youtube video linked above. [In reality, his video is outstanding evidence for the purposes of conducting a criminal investigation; all three abusers are easily and clearly identifiable. Bravo Mr Nayna.]
Well, as someone who does ‘go in aid’, and has done so several times in her life (the most recent incident is documented here, for those interested), I’d like to point out that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gone in aid on that bus, and also that you need a certain sort of personality in order to go in aid. I happen to have it. Most people don’t. If you think this is skiting on my part, please understand that the very thing that makes it easier (not easy) for me to go in aid makes my personality unattractive in other ways.
Why wouldn’t I go in aid on that bus?
1. Winning fights requires quite a bit of space. That’s why they give boxers and karateka those nice roomy rings to move around in. ‘Getting a good swing in’ or landing a kick takes excellent timing and maneuverability, which allows a tall person like me to get maximum benefit out of my ‘long levers’, as Enoeda Sensei would say. Boxers talk about ‘reach’, but that’s only a small part of it. Using one’s reach to maximum effect requires timing, something extremely difficult to achieve whilst in a moving vehicle. Why are those scenes in martial arts movies where they’re fighting on rolling logs or unstable flooring so amazing? Because they’re impossible in real life.
2. While it’s clear that some people were opposed to the abuse (starting, of course, with Mr Nayna), the abusers had an unknown but considerable number of supporters. Despite what they tell you in the movies, unless you are very, very good, fighting multiple assailants is very difficult (the incident above involved two, which I could handle: three, I suspect, would be too many).
3. Just about anything can be turned into a weapon. In the incident above, I was belted over the head with a (full) bottle of Buckfast. I later discovered that I have an unusually thick skull. That’s a good defence against a bottle. It’s not much use against a knife.
Why have I gone in aid in the past?
1. The tl;dr version? ‘Justice strong, compassion weak’. I have a strong internal sense of right and wrong, and loathe the abuse of power. I’m also quite equal opportunity about it. If people from a formerly oppressed group get their hands on the levers of power and then turn themselves from ‘victims’ into ‘victors’, I will judge them by the same standards by which I judged those who were formerly in power. It’s one set of rules or bust, or we may as well give up on this project called ‘civilisation’ and head for the hills.
2. The reason I’ve historically been able to drop those who try to kick in disabled people’s doors, flatten the school bully, and tell those with more power than me where to get off is because, in a restricted sense, I have been able to discount their claims on my humanity. If you go around kicking in disabled people’s doors, then I don’t have to care about you. That means I’m allowed to frogmarch you into the street in an extremely painful joint lock.
3. It’s for this reason I have no problem with Roman and American concepts of ‘castle doctrine’, or people defending their property with a firearm. If someone in the business of knocking over people’s houses finishes up badly beaten or shot by the householder, I’m not terribly exercised.
4. As should be reasonably obvious, while a few people like me scattered through society is probably a good thing, too many of us may be unhealthy.
Why rules work
Laws work, for the most part, not because they are enforced but because they are obeyed: there’s an important distinction between the two concepts. The reason there are relatively few murders in developed countries is not, on the whole, because there is a law against murder. It is because most people, most of the time, think murder is wrong, so the law is obeyed. This has nothing to do with law, and everything to do with the broad sense of social obligation that pervades high-trust societies. It is why it is very difficult to enforce laws that lack broad social consensus (easy to agree on murder, impossible to agree on drugs, say). It is also why when a law ceases to reflect the broader values of the society it purports to govern, it slowly becomes a dead letter. WH Auden caught it well in his poem ‘Law, like Love’:
Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I’ve told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.
Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Law is Good morning and Good night.
It is easy to forget that law is very much of its time, and that calling it up from the past can be like calling Eurydice up from the Underworld and expecting her to sing in a language other than Greek. We are reminded of this, sharply, when we confront the otherwise urbane and friendly Roman slaveholder, or the paragon of medieval virtue who thinks it all right to beat an unruly wife.
So what happened on that bus?
For a moment, the law needed to be enforced, because it was no longer being obeyed. At a guess, the disinhibition came about through the consumption of alcohol (the fact that beer was being passed around the bus is, I think, very telling). People can also behave very oddly in spaces where they think they aren’t being watched, despite the fact that they’re in a relatively large group.
Sometimes a bystander can be an enforcer in lieu of the agents of the state, but I seriously doubt that it would have been possible for anyone other than a uniformed police officer or soldier, preferably with a firearm, to get that crowd under control.