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The Impassive Bystander

Most of us do the right thing only when others are doing the right thing. Real heroes are the ones who break out of the group norm. The predominant cultural impulse is for people to transfer responsibility.

People think: "If something happens, I am not really responsible for it," says Paul Ragat Loeb, a lecturer on ethics and author of "Soul of a Citizen."

Loeb gives an example of people who worked in a factory processing plutonium for nuclear weapons. He talked to the workers. "I said, 'Do you think it is a good thing?' They said: 'It's not my responsibility. I could be making light bulbs. I could be working in a coal plant.' What it was about was a separation of individual actions from potentially enormous consequences. They said: 'It doesn't really matter. It is the same thing as making light bulbs.' I said: 'No. It isn't the same thing.' "

There is another significant cultural view: that others will take care of it. Hey, I just gotta take care of me.

"We hope people do the right thing," Loeb says. "We hope someone takes care of the poor. We hope someone is going to take care of that woman [in the psychiatric hospital]. 'But I am not her relative. I'm not the doctor assigned to her case.' I would argue the medical personnel who encountered her had an obvious responsibility to do something. I would hope if I were sitting in that room, I would have gone up to the desk and said, 'This woman is convulsing. You need to call someone to take care of her.' . . .

"I spend my entire life trying to understand engagement and denial," Loeb says. "A sentiment a lot of people share is: It's not going to make any difference."

Lawyer Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, sued Kings County Hospital Center, where the woman died on the waiting room floor. She was appalled about the indifference of the hospital staff.

The lawsuit describes the hospital as "a chamber of filth, decay, indifference and danger." A place where people suffering are regularly ignored.

"This isn't about one rogue employee not doing his or her job, but we see one person after the other observing a woman . . . on the floor and doing absolutely nothing over a period of nearly an hour," Lieberman says. "You don't see one person after another failing to respond to a situation like this without wondering about the culture. The first question is: Is there a culture of indifference? The conclusion is inescapable that there is a culture of indifference."

After the video went public, six hospital employees were fired. A statement from the hospital's president said: "We are all shocked and distressed by this situation. What our investigation so far determined violates the basic principles of the compassionate healthcare practiced every day here at Kings County and across our public hospital system."

Back to the video: At 5:32 a.m., according to the time register, Esmin Elizabeth Green falls off her chair. What we don't see is that she falls right below an observation window.

"The professional staff can see what is going on," Lieberman points out.

Green also appears to be caught under a chair. She tries again and again to get up.

By the lawyer's count, at least four staffers -- including a doctor -- did nothing but watch.


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