Everyone else on the train car, about 10 other souls, did not physically intervene to save him. This has, predictably, led some to denounce or applaud the inaction. Aside from the mass opinions on Reddit, there were two notable accounts on each side of the issue and both got it wrong.
John Daniel Davidson wrote a scathing attack in the Federalist on “Beta Males” and Petula Dvorak questioned the merit of defending others for the Washington Post. As an expert on conflict resolution, a trained ethicist, and a martial artist of 35 years, here’s me weighing in.
The central question in debate is this: is it morally wrong not to intervene to save another’s life under brutal attack?
Answer: It depends.
It depends on (at the very least) two allied factors: one’s physical capacity for such action and the circumstantial context.
First, one’s intervention must be fairly weighed against one’s own physical capacity for such action. If someone falls overboard in turbulent waters and you know that leaping in to save them from drowning is a likely death sentence, it is not morally wrong not to leap in. Instead, do something else (and others on the train did) like throw a life preserver and alert authorities. As the alarm raiser, their life is in your hands.
Now, if one is a professional swimmer or a lifeguard, the answer might be different. I say “might” because individuals must still fairly weigh their chances to help strangers against condemning themselves. But let’s face it: if Superman is witness to this attack and he chooses not to intervene, it is most certainly immoral. The second aspect deals with the circumstantial context: those turbulent waters might not seem so turbulent if it’s your baby that’s drowning.
I like the fire of Davidson’s piece, but he goes messily off course. He should cut the “beta male” name calling and misplaced analogies to Flight 93, in which every single person was inescapably at the mercy of murderers. And as a technical matter, I can assure that his assertion, “Any two adult men in that subway car could have stopped (Spires), no matter how crazy or strong he was, and saved Sutherland’s life,” is demonstrably false, and if he’s serious, dangerously naive. Subduing a crazed murderer, weapon in hand – and possibly on synthetic drugs - is terribly tricky business, let alone one covered in sweat and gore, occupying the middle of a train car’s narrow walkway. Not only can a stab to an eye from a simple pocketknife permanently blind, the victim blood on its blade threatens blood borne pathogens to the next victim and their family. Fun stuff, reality.
There are innumerable times when Police Officers have ganged up on (unarmed) perpetrators and still been unable to reasonably control them (and they at least have some training). This is not to say Davidson's “stopping” scenario is not possible, it is to acknowledge it is most likely not probable. I don’t know if Davidson trains martially. If he does, I urge him to keep training. If he does not, he ought to, as well as write a clarion call for the broader study of warriorship.
Where Davidson is Aristotelian foolhardy, Dvorak is just sad. Not only does she openly ridicule any idea for intervention, she builds a case against it. Readers are led to conclude that any physical defense is somehow unjustified, even to the extent of re-examining a spur-of-the-moment, successful life-saving action and end her piece with the unspoken question, “Is it worth it?”
The answer, Ms. Dvorak, is a throaty “YES!” especially to the person (and their loved ones) whose life was actually saved. Dvorak’s intellectual dishonesty (or willful ignorance, take your pick) on the merit of Concealed Carry boggles. As Leftists enjoy saying, “the debate is over” and in this case it most certainly is. For had there been a “good guy with a gun” (CCW or a Police Officer) on the train who took action, Sutherland would have had the very best chance of surviving his attacker.
I get that even thinking about dealing with this kind of horror leaves good folks inert – an utterly normal response. But that is no excuse to tonally poo-poo any defensive action, which always favors inertness. Dvorak even softens the blow of her relativism by empathizing, “It makes a lot of us uncomfortable to think we would have cowered instead of confronting Sutherland’s killer.” Of course it’s uncomfortable, since this part is where it gets ethically sticky – we are all perfectly capable of intervening, we choose not to.
See, universal common sense informs that each of us, which is to say, all of us, does have the mental, spiritual, and physical capacity to intervene on behalf of another who needs our protection when the victim is a loved one. In the case of say, a child or sibling or spouse being brutally attacked, there is not a single person that loves them who would be unable to at least throw themselves in front of or upon their body to shield them from further violence. Everyone who is mobile, is capable of doing this, from grandma to junior, and they have. No one has to be Batman to intervene because doing violence to the aggressor is not the point, protecting the victim is.
This is why for the majority of untrained people it can feel so difficult to answer this ethical issue. That’s because they are most probably asking themselves the wrong question. It isn't “should I intervene or not?” But rather “am I willing to die or not?” The untrained must ask themselves who it is they are willing to die for. (Trained folks have already answered this.) If you are unwilling to die to protect a complete stranger, that doesn't make you weird, it makes you human. Is it moral then, for normal folks to not intervene? No. The decision to not intervene is not moral. But it is also not immoral. Thus the bland call of inertness. However, if you are willing to die to protect a stranger, that makes you super human and we call those people "heroes." (And just so we’re clear, if one is willing to physically confront the aggressor and subdue or kill them to protect the life of that stranger, this makes you a warrior.)
The untrained majority has a far higher chance of succumbing to violence when intervening, which is why they generally choose not to. Had Spires not had a knife and only been beating Sutherland to death, the odds increase that others might have stepped up. But the melee weapon was a game changer.
Some time ago I wrote a piece called Sensei Obvious when atheist-at-large Sam Harris, himself I believe a proponent of “jiujitsu,” wrote a rather simple-headed piece on his blog called the “Truth About Violence,” and unfortunately propagated the idea that regular folks will fight back. But the wrenching “truth” is that most folks will not fight back, or help others under attack. If they cannot escape they are more than likely to give in and give up. Nobody wants to get hurt and die. Fighting back, like any cultivated personality trait, is a practiced response. And this is where I stand with Davidson: we ought to physically protect others as best we can.
My advice? Get trained. The best thing martial training can do to prepare anyone for conflict is not provide the necessary skills to respond to it - that's a matter of long term personal integrity. But rather calibrate ourselves morally to know that we ought to respond to it. It is this thinking that presents a clear and present danger to the ambivalent inaction of moral relativism for it disarms and de-legitimizes it.
What options do the untrained have when they choose to intervene? Here’s just a few ideas:
Suit up. Zip up any jackets and even layer them if you must confront a knife. Put a bookbag on backwards covering your chest. It won’t be any kind of replacement for actual body armor, but it’ll be better than nothing.
Folks were headed to July Fourth festivities. Did anyone have a field blanket? Used like a net it could envelop the attacker and control him. Holding a jacket like a two-handed shield in front of oneself could do some good.
When it comes to confronting weapons the best choice is always another weapon. Period. Strike the attacker to separate and distract him while others pull the victim away from the attack.Of course, all these options and more are predicated on the notion that one has already consented to intervene. And this is truly the scariest issue because human conflict is by far the number one phobia of the species. Why is it that moral relativism in action (as Dvorak wields it) and political correctness in language have become so mightily attractive? Simple: obfuscating truth blurs the sharp divides that often dictate battle lines and their decisive actions. Those who espouse these views honestly believe they are doing the “right” and “moral” thing, even though clouding truth obscures the matter of “rightness” itself. And of course there can never be escape from history’s cruel tutelage that disorientation from truth always places lives into greater, not lesser, jeopardy.
It is not immoral not to wish to sacrifice oneself for strangers. But it is moral should we choose to do so in order to defend their life.
Knowing this, we ought not revel in selfish protectionism. And should certainly not finger-wag others into dispassionate inaction simply to justify ourselves. This is how moral relativism propagates itself.
We ought to protect and defend others to escape violence.
And we ought to want to.