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Courageous or spineless? Our actions -- or inactions -- decide for us [Commentary]

The psychological explanation for what happened to Catherine Ferreira is neat and tidy and sounds like reason.

"The bystander effect," explains Psychology Today on its website, "occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in an emergency situation." While people are more apt to step in if they are the only ones available to do so, the magazine says that when gathered in groups, they tend to hold back and look to one another for cues on what to do.

It is a definition that manages to explain everything without explaining anything, to clear things up without remotely satisfying. Certainly, it doesn't make it any easier to watch the online video as Ms. Ferreira, 27, is attacked by another woman, a McDonald's co-worker, on a walkway behind the restaurant, as she is savagely beaten, kicked and cursed while a crowd of about a dozen people gathers, watches and does absolutely nothing.

Well, no, that's not entirely fair. They do take out their cellphones and record the action. You can hear one guy give an appreciative "ooh" when an especially vicious blow is struck. Only one bystander has the manhood to do the right thing, and that is Ms. Ferreira's son, who is two. He yells and kicks at the woman in a futile attempt to get her off his mom.

In response, the woman tells Ms. Ferreira she better get her son back before "I kick him in the (expletive) face, too." Walking off, she spits on Ms. Ferreira, who is lying on the ground. No one on the scene called police, who didn't learn of the crime until she got to her apartment complex and a security guard made the call.

The sterling credit to humanity who did all this has been identified by police in Salem, N.J., as 25-year-old Latia Harris. After almost a week on the run, she turned herself in last week and at this writing is behind bars for want of $20,000 bail. Authorities say she was angry Ms. Ferreira had gossiped about her.

While Ms. Harris' alleged crime is inarguably execrable, I find myself even more appalled by what those onlookers did -- or more, accurately, did not do. That was also a crime, even if it appears in no criminal code.

Almost 20 years ago in this space, I celebrated a teenage girl named Keshia Thomas. Ms. Thomas, who is African-American, saw an angry mob of counter-demonstrators at a Ku Klux Klan rally beating and stomping a white man wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt and an SS tattoo. She separated herself from the mob and threw her body on top of his to shield him. With every reason to leave him to his fate, she instead saved that man from injury or even death.

Her physical courage was remarkable, but it was her moral courage that truly inspired. Too often, we bear witness instead to moral cowardice, to ethical imbecility that welds us to the unthinking mob like cows in a herd.

Think Kitty Genovese, raped and stabbed to death in New York 50 years ago and the cries for help her neighbors heard, but ignored. Think a group of adults watching and cheering in 2003 as 31 Chicago area teenagers brutally beat a smaller group of girls, then slathered their faces with feces, mud and vomit. Think Catherine Ferreira absorbing savage blows as cameras record and some guy says, "Ooh."

We know that sort of thing isn't predestined, isn't hardwired into us. Keshia Thomas tells us so. She speaks to what we can be. But that crowd with the cameras speaks to what we too often are: indifferent, desensitized, estranged from our own humanity.

Sometimes, there comes a moment of deciding: are you the crowd, or the woman? Are you the mob, or the man? That moment may tell you more about yourself than you ever wanted to know. And it is an admonition to parents that the songwriter gave good advice:

Teach your children well.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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