Recently, I was walking down the streets of downtown Chicago, reveling in one of those perfect balmy afternoons when, out of nowhere, a strange man grabbed me from behind.
Thank God he didn’t hurt me, and he didn’t steal anything either—except my peace of mind. He would have grabbed some of my faith in humanity too, if it weren’t for another stranger on the street, an innocent bystander, who since the moment this episode went down I’ve referred to as the “good guy.” In contrast, I’ll forever dub the perpetrator the “bad guy.”
A split second after the man grabbed me, my heart beating fast, I bellowed a salty expletive at him. Next, the good guy stepped in and pushed the offender away from me, and then the two men scuffled with each other. Dumbfounded, but at this point assuming I wasn’t endangered, I watched the fight, the testosterone whisking back and forth like a ping pong ball.
But then, before I knew it, the bad guy got away.
“Sorry I couldn’t get him,” the brave man told me, “but I ripped his shirt for you.”
My heart still pounding, I thanked him and said, “I guess there’s at least one good guy for every bad one.” Then I thanked him about 123 more times before we parted ways.
Through my glass-half-full worldview, I actually believe the number of good people far outweigh the bad. Yet still, we hear reports in the news about bystanders not taking action in emergencies.
There’s even a name for it. The bystander effect is a psychosocial phenomenon where strangers don’t come to the rescue of victims in emergencies, particularly when many other bystanders are near. They figure someone else is handling it or they don’t want to get involved.
Much of the time, I doubt we bystanders even notice hairy situations unfolding in front of us because we have our heads buried in our phones, and aren’t paying attention to the people around us. Our obliviousness to our surroundings leads us to becoming crime victims too.
The numbers speak for themselves. Criminologist Timothy Hart and sociologist Ternace Miethe—using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey—found that bystanders were judged by victims as “neither helping nor hurting” in nearly half (48%) of emergency situations.
That statistic makes the good guy from my story that much more extraordinary. And it brings to mind another exceptional act, captured on video, committed by a group of bystanders in Logan, Utah, this past September.
The bystanders, who included construction workers and students, transformed themselves into a group of adrenaline-charged first responders by miraculously lifting a burning car up and pulling out a motorcyclist, Brandon Wright, trapped beneath the car. Because of their heroism, Wright, age 21, is expected to recover.
The Utah “angels,” as they’ve been called, and the good guy from my story are acting according to Jewish law. Judaism obligates a bystander to aid a victim in an emergency. The famous Leviticus passage, one of the most important commandments in Judaism, instructs, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is spilled.”
I certainly don’t know if the good guy from my story is Jewish. In fact, I don’t even know his name—and I probably never will. And I don’t know the names of the Utah responders either.
But I know who they are. They are courageous people who did mitzvahs on the streets of Chicago and Utah. They are people who chose not to mind their own business and to jeopardize their own safety to stick their necks out for strangers.
In short, they are heroes. They are heroes for us all to aspire to emulate as we begin a new year.