Colum Kenny: He who hesitates is lost – and so is the life of the poor victim
We tend to shy away when faced with potentially dangerous dilemmas, but at what cos?
Would you risk your life to save someone? A New York photographer was at the centre of a moral storm last week when he took pictures of a man about to die but did not intervene to save him. Neither did ordinary members of the public.
The man on the subway track, Korean Ki-Suck Han (58), did not get there by chance. He had been shoved. A freelance photographer happened to be on the platform and quickly snapped photos of the impending disaster. The tabloid New York Post has been heavily criticised for publishing the photos two days running. They are now all over the internet.
The photographer, Umar Abbasi, claims that he was hoping to alert the train driver by flashing his camera. He says that he was not close enough to help. In the 22 seconds that it reportedly took for the incident to unfold, nobody else helped either as Han desperately tried to climb out of the way of the train.
How many of us would risk it? A man has since been charged with Han's murder. A lawyer claims that his homeless client, Naeem Davis (30), was defending himself in an altercation with an allegedly angry and drunken Han.
If someone had got to Han in time, they might have grabbed his outstretched arms and pulled him up before the train hit. But they would have put themselves in danger. A number of people are said to have used their phones to take pictures of the ugly aftermath,
Some years ago in New York I found myself on a subway train heading in the wrong direction. An evidently drugged youth was sprawled across two seats. A grumpy middle-aged man got on and sat beside him, pushing the youth's leg away. The leg came back and was pushed twice more. I saw trouble brewing and wished I was not there. One more push and the youth had the man by the throat. Nobody moved. If New Yorkers were not responding, why should I? The guy could have a knife.
Just then, a middle-aged white American shouted: "Leave him alone." The youth turned, said, "Okay," and began instead to menace and harass the man who had intervened. Still nobody else moved.
Then the train reached a station. No one budged. I left quickly to look for a cop. But finding none, I returned before the train moved on. The youth had fled, leaving his victims shocked but relatively unscathed. I hope that he fled because he thought that I would find a cop. It bothered me that it might have been much worse because nobody intervened sooner. More recently, because of that incident, I intervened quickly when a young, aggressive drunk began to molest schoolgirls on the Dart. He left off doing so only to threaten that he would stab me.
He also produced a mobile phone and seemed to call friends ahead to meet him at our mutual destination. So I left the Dart at the next station and asked its driver to call the gardai to meet it further down the line. In fact they never did. I learned later that the man who threatened me had earlier been imprisoned for assault with a knife.
We tend to hesitate when faced with dangerous dilemmas. People who hesitated on that New York subway platform last week left it too late to save Han as he turned horrified towards the lights of an oncoming train. Maybe it really was too late to intervene.
But Naeem Davis did not hesitate to take pictures, and they were splashed all over the front page of the New York Post, turning Han's death from a personal tragedy into profit for its owner – Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.
News photographers and TV crews face moral dilemmas in dangerous conditions. How often in a war zone or a riot might some Western reporter or photographer intervene and abandon an assignment to save a single life? But by becoming a player, he or she can complicate the media's freedom to move among combatants and to report events to the world.
It is hard to see any moral justification for the New York Post publishing pictures of Han dying, even if the photographer's claim that he hoped his flash would alert the train driver to danger is true.
Just days before Han's death, heart-warming pictures of a New York cop buying socks and boots for a homeless man went viral on the internet. If those pictures were published without the homeless man's agreement then they were probably an invasion of his privacy, even though he was on a public street.
But how much greater an invasion into the grief and privacy of his family is the blazoning of pictures of Han's approaching death across the full front page of a tabloid?
Han's daughter said last week that her father, a Presbyterian, was the kind of man who was always willing to help someone. Unfortunately, there was nobody able or willing to help him in his last moments.