On going in aid

By skepticlawyer

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
Anytime, anywhere,
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.


  1. derrida derider
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    … I have no problem with Roman and American concepts of ‘castle doctrine’, or people defending their property with a firearm

    Well I do – more because it leads to homeowners being shot than because it leads to intruders being shot. Burglars in Texas are armed and often prepared to shoot sleeping people in their beds before such people can acess their own arms. Not so in more civilised jurisdictions.

    And that’s even before you take account of misunderstanding and mistakes (whoops, this doesn’t look like my mate’s pad – oh god I’ve been shot”), easy outs for sundry bastards (“whataya mean I planned it? I kicked her out and then she broke back in”) and the fact that a gun in the house is far more likely (27 times, according to one study I read) to shoot a family member than any stranger.

  2. kvd
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Learn something new every day; two things actually.

    1 it is ‘racist’ to rant against French people, whereas I would have thought it was simply unacceptaby (probably dangerously so) aggressive behaviour. But I suppose ‘racist’ is easier to shout than ‘culturalist’.
    2. Apple sell an iPhone with HD video camera, but without the simple ability to dial 000 and request police assistance. Wonder if the vid hit Youtube before he got off? Pretty much anything seems possible these days.

    And I also think dd got it ‘more righter’.

  3. Simon
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m a big guy (6’5, 120kgs) and so I look intimidating enough that no one has ever attempted to fight me in any of the insalubrious drinking establishments I’ve entered from time to time.

    I would never intervene in that sort of verbal conflict.

    Brendan Keilar is why (I was a lawyer at the time he was murdered) http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/a-biker-a-strip-club-and-a-dead-hero/2007/06/18/1182019032653.html

    The person who got hit over the head with a bottle was lucky. That coud so easily have been a glassing that took an eye or a stabbing that took a life.

  4. Posted November 23, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m with the majority here in that I think it’s best to leave enforcement violence to trained professionals who are going to be under a higher level of scrutiny. The problem with intervening in such a situation is not knowing if you’re going to make it worse by provoking more violence than would otherwise occur. That said, there are ways to non-violently

  5. Posted November 23, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    everyone in Melbourne remembers the tourist and the worker who rushed to help a girl being bashed at 8am in King Street. Tourist seriously wounded, worker (a family man) shot dead.

  6. L Plate Lawyer
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    This is very concerning. I’ve read a news report that suggests two of the three main instigators have been identified by the police.

    You’d like to think that these people would have woken up the next day hungover and remorseful. Although, I doubt they felt remorse. Probably fear that they would be identified and called to account for their appalling behaviour.

    If I were a bloke (and a 7 foot tall bloke, at that) I would not have intervened. In a tight space, with an unidentifiable number of angry and intoxicated people (and their children) would be dangerous. And highly unlikely to do anything other than escalate an already dangerous situation.

    It’s just so embarrassing…

  7. Posted November 23, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    kvd, I suspect that the newspapers are using the word ‘racist’ rather than ‘xenophobic’ because (a) it is shorter and fits better into a headline, and (b) because, like Pauline Hanson, they don’t really know what the latter means. It is also part of a broader problem arising from the misuse and overuse of the epithet ‘racist’ when it doesn’t apply.

    I don’t wish this to degenerate into a gun rights thread (I’ll wait for one of my gun-owning libertarian friends to get all statistical), except to point out that ‘hot robberies’ (where the householder is home) are very rare in the US compared to other developed countries, with the exception – unsurprisingly – of Canada and Switzerland. Now I accept that there are enormous complexities attached to many aspects of US gun laws, but ‘castle doctrine’ is one of the easiest to justify.

  8. Mel
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    kvd @4:

    “Apple sell an iPhone with HD video camera, but without the simple ability to dial 000 and request police assistance.”

    If the thugs hear you talking to the police you could end up getting bashed or worse, since someone on the bus had a knife. Besides, from my experience, the police may not turn up for half an hour.

    I feel most sorry for the kids of the bogan couple. What is the likelihood that they’ll grow up to be sociopaths and criminals? If it was up to me their children would be removed and they’d be forcibly sterilised.

    Thank God I no longer live in the city …

  9. kvd
    Posted November 24, 2012 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    Well I regret my comment above that I agree with dd re the referenced ‘castle doctrine’ – which I can’t really associate with this incident anyway.

    Accepting SL’s wish that this not degenerate into an argument about gun laws, I would just like to state that while I am closely aligned with SL’s view of a householder’s right to self defence, I get seriously conflicted when this phrase gets ‘re-programmed’ into a justification for such things as Neighbourhood Watch being turned into Neighbourhood Vigilantism – aka the Trayvon Martin killing in the US. It was this extending of the concept that I was thinking of when I noted agreement with dd.

    But I do totally agree with Mel’s lack of desire to return to city living.

  10. Posted November 24, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    So these people were on a bus to Frankston, they were singing songs in a language that evokes the finer things in life and they were happy.

    To that lot it’s the grossest provocation. You might as well subject to them to a lecture entitled “Your Lives Are Shit And Will Never Get Better”.

    If it was up to me their children would be removed and they’d be forcibly sterilised.

    Interesting how all the functional people from Frankston I know strongly agree with this statement.

  11. Henry2
    Posted November 25, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I wonder if rather than trying to support the singer with violence from close at hand, one was to sing the same song from some distance away might not have helped to break up the party to some extent?

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