Having eyes to see

The tragic death of Hugo Tale-Yax raises deep ethical questions.

Occasionally a single event can have such an impact in either its beauty or horror that it can be understood as an indicator of the state of a society. For my local barista it was the day a Melbourne man stopped his car at the top of the Westgate Bridge in peak hour morning traffic and calmly walked to the edge and threw his toddler over the side. According to the café owner the incident was a sign of a culture that was rotten and teetering.

A story out of New York this week may well come to have similar overtones. Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was a 31-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, trying to make ends meet in the toughest of cities when he came to a violent end on April 18. In death, the homeless itinerant worker has become famous across the globe.
Tale-Yax was stabbed multiple times in the chest and stomach after coming to the aid of a woman who was being attacked. CCTV footage captures the would-be rescuer lurching away from the struggle and collapsing to the sidewalk of a street in Queens. Over the next hour as he lay bleeding to death, more than twenty people walked past him on the sidewalk. Some paused to look and then kept going. One stopped to take a picture with his mobile phone. No one called 911. He lay there for an hour and was dead when Firemen finally arrived.

The story recalls another from the same neighbourhood in the 1960s. Kitty Genovese, a 29-year-old bar manager was stabbed to death in repeated attacks in Queens while neighbours who heard her cries for help did nothing to assist her. The case led to major studies by psychologists and sociologists into the bystander effect—the phenomenon where people fail to offer assistance in an emergency situation when other people are present.

As with the Genovese case, the latest incident of apparent callous disregard for the suffering of another human being, has commentators asking what it all means. The dead man’s grieving and bewildered brother said ‘It’s a message about humanity. We need to love one another.’ Love appears not to have been on the minds of those who hurried past the dying man. Perhaps they were rushing to get to work. It seems likely that (not unreasonable) fear of the consequences of getting involved may have played a part. Or maybe they had just grown accustomed to the sight of human wreckage on their streets. In any case there is no good angle on this story.

When Jesus was asked by a cynical teacher of the law how to inherit eternal life, he told a now famous parable of unexpected and lavish kindness by an outsider to a man in great need. Everyone recognises the honour and beauty of the deed of the Samaritan and the shame of those who ignored the plight of the hapless stranger. Not everyone knows that the ‘hero’ of this story was from a despised and rejected group within society.

What is it that makes some people act in such situations with courageous self-sacrifice, while others choose to look the other way? It’s a complex question, but research into the motivations of those who rescued Jews and other endangered groups during World War II may provide some clues.

Everyone has a sphere of moral obligation within which we see our lives and responsibilities to others

Researchers have tried to define the ‘altruistic personality’ and have found that those most likely to be involved in rescuing behaviour were those who had been brought up in loving homes with a strong sense of responsibility for the welfare of others, including those outside their immediate community.1 It seems compassion has to be taught as part of education for young children and teenagers.

Being raised in a loving family that modelled altruism and tolerance of difference appears significant. The attitude to ‘the other’ distinguished rescuers from bystanders. A clear sense of right and wrong and the notion that you must stand up for your beliefs rather than just go with the crowd both play a role.2 Independence of thought was a vital predictor of rescuer behaviour.

These are important lessons. Whatever allowed the people of Queens to walk by a prone Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, and not see him as a person worth stopping for, is a blinkering effect that would not be evident in someone fitting the ‘altruistic personality’ profile.

Everyone has a sphere of moral obligation within which we see our lives and responsibilities to others. Our worldview will determine just how large and comprehensive that sphere will be. The concept of every human ‘made in the image of God’ has profound implications for a moral universe that is all encompassing and disallows an ‘us-them’ mentality.

Jesus, who in story after story saw people—even, and especially, the unloved, the unwanted and the unnoticed—made it clear how we ought to relate. While his followers have not always modelled this well, had such an attitude been more evident among the busy New Yorkers minding their own business on their way to work, perhaps the sorry tale of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax would have turned out very differently.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

1.Victoria Barnett, Bystanders, Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust. Greenwood Press, Westport, 1999, 159.
2. Fogelman, Eva and Weiner, Valerie ‘The Few the Brave the Noble”, Psycholoy Today, August 1985, 65