What would you do?
You’re strolling in a large public park in a foreign country on a lovely afternoon, enjoying the space with hundreds of other folks, when you’re distracted by a disturbance: a man and woman are angrily screaming at each other in a language you don’t understand, fighting over possession of a large satchel while a dog on a leash dashes around them.
Not pleasant, but not something to get worried about — until the man, who is well over 6 feet tall and much larger than the woman, clubs her to the ground and starts hitting and kicking her.
Two Americans who witnessed this scene in Amsterdam’s beautiful Vondelpark — my partner Jacqui and I — were shocked at the violence. But we didn’t hesitate to rush to the woman’s defense.
Which, in retrospect, may have been foolhardy. Still, there was no way we were going to watch the guy beat up on a woman in broad daylight with people all around.
And who else jumped in to help? One other guy, who helped me fend off the attacker (nothing physical — we yelled and waved at him, and he backed away, still screaming). Jacqui asked other bystanders to please call the police (in English, but almost everyone in the Netherland speaks it). Somebody must have, but most of the onlookers seemed frozen in place.
We managed to separate the couple — who clearly were both under some mood-altering chemical influence and behaving erratically — and the guy stalked off down a path. Then he whirled around and ran at us again. The other guy and I stood our ground, and the attacker once again retreated, down the path and out of sight.
Meanwhile, it was all we could do to convince the woman not to go after him. She spoke English, and related a convoluted story about her relationship with the guy. A minute or so later, two park security guys rolled up on bicycles and talked with the woman about the incident. They showed no interest in talking to Jacqui or me. All of this occurred within a couple of minutes that seemed much longer.
The whole thing was odd and unnerving — even more so a few days later after we returned to the United States and heard about the murders of two men who came to the aid of two women on a commuter train in Portland who were being harassed by a man yelling insults at them (a white supremacist, it turns out). They did the right thing, and paid for it with their lives, surely never thinking it would come to that.
The angry, violent man in the Vondelpark could have been just as dangerous and deadly. We didn’t think about that in the moment. Were we heroic? Good Samaritans? Crazy to get involved? Just plain lucky it turned out the way it did? Those are things you think about afterwards, when the adrenalin subsides and you take stock of what happened. We weren’t inventorying potential consequences at the time, except what might happen to the woman if the man kept beating her.
The experience in the park was at extreme odds with the rest of the time we spent in Amsterdam, a friendly, scenic, fascinating city that doesn’t feel threatening. Our Dutch friends were appalled when we told our story to them.
So I’m not quite sure how to think about the incident. Which makes my original question — what would you do? — a bit unfair, because we never know what’s going to come along to challenge our sense of right and wrong, or our common concern for other human beings in distress. We don’t pick the circumstances — it could be in a park, on a train, or in other public spaces. And we can’t predict our reactions.
The one thing we are more aware of, given the world we live in, is that personal harm is more likely than ever to accompany the most basic human response to another’s suffering (as in the park) or indignity (as on the train in Portland). It’s a risk that any of us may have to weigh in a split second.