A man drowned in San Francisco Bay yesterday. By all accounts it was the suicide of a 52-year-old man, distraught with life and the apparent lack of answers for whatever despairs were driving him. He simply waded into the waters and drifted out into the bay until exhaustion overtook him. What made the episode even more tragic was that many others on the beach watched it all take place without intervening. And even more tragic was that some of those onlookers were actually members of the Alameda, California first responders, police and rescue personnel. They had come to the scene in response to a 911 call, but by city policy were prohibited from entering the water for a rescue. It seems that the city had adopted a cost-cutting measure in recent years which prohibited rescue personnel from conducting water rescues. The policy rendered the rescue personnel static as the man bobbed, floated and eventually succumbed over the course of an hour’s struggle.
It’s a sad and infuriating story. Sad because a man faced such despair that he chose death as the best of his options in facing whatever demons were confronting him. Infuriating because so many people- even those trained to intervene in such cases- allowed it to happen, because of a policy. By evening of that day, the Alameda community was in shock and an uproar about a policy about which most were unaware. By the next day, the story had made national news.
The story became newsworthy because deep down, we all recognize that the policy in this case was just plain wrong. When everyday folks step into a threatening circumstance to rescue a life, as they often do, there is no question of policy or budget: it happens because it’s the right thing to do. When trained professionals are directed to not render assistance due to budget constraints or political expediency, we recognize the fallacy of such thinking immediately. The first responders knew it, but felt helpless in the face of the directive. As intentional as the victim was, he deserved someone’s best efforts to pull him back from the brink of death. He did not receive it. We know it was wrong. Apparently the Alameda community leaders know it was wrong, as well, as they have subsequently found funding to pay for water rescue once again. Unfortunately, it’s too late for the man in the water.
Upon hearing such a story, it’s easy for us to shake our heads at the seeming lack of compassion shown by all of the bystanders on the beach, whether they were trained professionals or not. Each had their reasons for not rendering assistance, whether such reasons make sense to us or not. We know the right thing, whether we could have performed it ourselves or not. Often there is a wide gap between what we know to be right and what we are willing to do about it.
As incensed as I felt at hearing this story, I recognize that the apathy demonstrated by the beachcombers is little different from the inaction that I demonstrate when faced with people in equally dire circumstances. I know of the intense poverty and hunger that exists throughout many regions of the world, and yet, like the beachcombers, I can muster little activity to help the dying. I can know the injustices being carried out in the name of local or national policy and remain silent in the belief that I’m following the rules. Many of the witnesses to this episode were interviewed and expressed disbelief in the callous attitude of the rescuers, without recognizing their own inactions in the face of even greater distress and tragedy that exists around us every day.
There is a big difference between knowing and doing. The case can be made that knowing without doing is an even greater moral outrage. For most of us, we know the right thing to be done. We simply need to do it….