December 4, 2012

We journalists are observers. Even we opinion-writer types like to have a little detachment when writing about issues, particularly if they involve communities to which we belong. There are exceptions, of course, as my lengthy paper trail would attest. But there are times in a reporter’s life when the detachment must give way to humanity.

Thankfully, I’ve never been in a position where my getting the story required me to stand by in the middle of someone else’s presumed doom. Others have showed no qualms about getting involved. Anderson Cooper is a first-rate journalist who has logged more time in the world’s hotspots than most American journalists. While covering the Haitian earthquake in January 2010, a looting riot broke out.

As things got really out of control, I saw a looter on the roof of the store they’d broken into throw what I think was part of a concrete block into the crowd. It hit a small boy in the head. I saw him collapse. More chunks of concrete were being thrown at the looters on the roof. The injured boy couldn’t get up. He’d try and then collapse again. Blood was pouring from his head. He was conscious but had no control over his body. I was afraid someone on the roof would see him lying there and throw another cinder block piece onto him. I was afraid he’d get killed. No one seemed to be helping him. I ran to where he was struggling and picked him up off the ground. I brought him to a spot about a hundred feet away.

Cooper did what I would have done. At least, I hope I would have had that much courage. I bring this up because the front page of the New York Post today has one of the most haunting photos I’ve seen in a while.

New York Post Front Page
(New York Post)

Mere seconds before Ki Suk Han of Queens was to be run down by a downtown Q train in midtown Manhattan yesterday, freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi snapped a photo of him trying to climb back on the subway platform after being pushed onto the tracks by another man. By the looks of the picture, Han probably had about 10 seconds tops before he was struck. But there were other photos taken by Abbasi that showed there was plenty of time to help the injured man to safety. You can see those in a video report on the New York Post Web site.

Abbasi told the paper that he repeatedly set off his camera flash to warn the conductor of the oncoming train. But that wasn’t nearly enough. “The most painful part was I could see him getting closer to the edge,” he said. “He was getting so close.” Imagine how much closer he could have gotten with a little help from someone standing so close by.

As a former New Yorker, the fear of being pushed in front of a train is omnipresent. You devise all sorts of scenarios just in case you can’t get out in time. One of mine was to roll into the usually wet and trash-strewn center gully the rats use for easy passage. And you also pray you’re not there if it happens to someone else. The myriad concerns and calculations that would race through your mind could prove paralyzing. But you also hope that humanity would trump, especially if there is time to do the right thing, to save a life.