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People and Politics Forum 28. 05. 2010

"Would you help people in danger?"

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More information:

Civil Courage - When It Doesn't Pay to Help

Walter Petker did what politicians are always encouraging citizens to do: he demonstrated civil courage and waded into the fray when he came across teenagers beating up a school boy. But his courage hasn't been rewarded. On the contrary. Weeks after the incident, public prosecutors sent him a penalty order for over 200 euros, because he allegedly insulted one of the perpetrators. His is no isolated case. Increasingly, people who show civil courage are finding themselves in court.

Our Question is:

"Would you help people in danger?"

Waltraud Maassen, in New Zealand, writes:

"..well I would at least use my mobile to call the police. Thing is, would they react? In 1933 to 1945, Germans were world champions in turning a blind eye. Everyone knew what was going on, but nobody bothered to do anything."

And she doesn't mince her words:

"Seems the German judiciary is slipping in that direction. If that is indeed the case, then it's shameful, in fact a disgrace!"

Peter Coninx in Belgium says politicians must take the next step:

"The solution is simple: I believe not judges are to blame but rather the politicians. They should introduce a bill that excludes prosecution of citizens who showed 'civil courage', in case of light injuries and perhaps more severe injuries. This will exclude ridiculous penalty orders and can help encourage civil courage."

Nguyen van Hoe in Vietnam suggests that in many countries it can be dangerous to intervene to protect others:

"Of course, one should help people when they are threatened. But how? In some countries it can be very difficult to show civil courage. People are afraid they'll be punished."

Hannelore Krause in Germany warns that doing so could be a problem:

"Not necessarily. It depends on the situation and who is involved. If I can tell from the start that I would be endangering my own life, then I'd do everything I could not to get involved."

Herbert Fuchs in Finland agrees that one must be careful:

"Whether I intervene actively or passively (depends on the situation). If active intervention can help, then of course. If there are too many aggressors, then (I would call the police). But you have to assume that the aggressors are armed, and because most people in Germany are not allowed to carry weapons, shoing courage could backfire ... . I would certainly try to do something, but I don't know in advance what ... ."

Ron Beraha in the United States recalls a worrying precedent:

"When judges rule against people trying to help someone in trouble. Its just like the people allowing Nazi Germany to commit atrocities because the law supported the Nazis. Justice should follow the intent of the law and not words. After all people can only write words as best as possible. The intent is what is important."

René Junghans writing from Brazil would, provided he could avoid getting caught up in physical violence:

"I am too old for that, but I would immediately call the police and wait for the officers close to the crime scene. I’d offer to testify as a witness. If possible I would also try to record evidence on my mobile phone camera. It’s totally absurd that some people with a conscience have actually been taken to court. Why doesn’t the public prosecutor think about who the victim is here and who the aggressor. This is enough to take people’s faith in the justice system. Many would probably like to help, but are too afraid to intervene because this could be turned against them. … People here in Brazil are all too ready to take the law into their own hands, because they are fed up with robbers getting out of prison with the help of shysters only to commit new crimes. I personally reject that completely because I still trust in the rule of law, but I can understand that people can react that way when they are witness of crimes."

Ralf Oltmann in Thailand was troubled by our report about civil courage increasingly landing people in court:

Such reports are rather frightening when you realize what can happen when you are just trying to help. I think the prerogative to help others should always take priority in judgement in such cases. Otherwise one needn’t be surprised when one is denied help the next time oneself is in need of assistance.

Wolfgang Poeschl writing from the United Arab Emirates fears that such experience will put off people when confronted with aggressive youngsters

„(…) There are statistics that claim only 5 percent of all onlookers would be prepared to intervene. That means that 95 of the people around me would not come to my assistance if I am under threat. But that also means that there is a 95 percent chance that a person under attack belongs to that majority of people who are unwilling to help someone else. If the victim really does belong this majority, then they don’t deserve help. It seems that this is what our society wants and we are defeated by numbers. Such court cases only reinforce this. If I were to intervene in a violent situation then there is a high probability that I myself will be involved in the fight and might well get injured. Aggression has to be met with counter-aggression in order to protect the victim as well as myself. After all, we don’t send the Bundeswehr to Afghanistan merely armed with truncheons. Added to the great danger of getting injured my involvement might also carry the risk of litigation. The greater the risk, the more someone has to be prepared to accept injury or a court case in order to help someone in danger. But one should intervene as an act of humanity. I certainly would. The threat of legal action is only an added risk."

Victor Chan in the US says he certainly would intervene:

“If I don't, what kind of a person I would become? It goes against all the things I believe in and have become. What is important is that you just have to have some idea how to neutralize the situation without making it worse. A simple phone call to the police would do. The objective is not to be a hero but to avoid further harm done to the victim. A simple verbal threat that you have called the police would usually deter the attacker. And educating the public in how to exercise civil courage would help too.”

The editors of 'People and Politics' reserve the right to abridge viewers' letters.