50-year-old Raymond Zack waded into San Francisco Bay and stood calmly in the 54-degree water, apparently waiting to die. His suicide took nearly an hour, but eventually he drowned, with no rescue attempts from any of the 75 San Franciscans who gathered on the shore to watch the entire tragedy.
Why didn’t anyone try to rescue the man?
Apparently it was because nobody was paid to do it. You see, stopping Zack from killing himself wasn’t anyone’s job.
The media’s focus in reporting yet another disturbing incident with echoes of the murder of Kitty Genovese has been exclusively on the inert Almeda police and firemen who witnessed Zack’s suicide. “Fire crews and police could only watch,” wrote the Associate Press.
What does the AP mean, “they could only watch”? Were they shackled? Held at gunpoint? Were all of them unable to swim? They didn’t have to watch and do nothing, they chose to watch and do nothing, just like every one of the bystanders who weren’t police or firemen chose to be passive and apathetic when saving a life required action and risk.
City budget cuts caused the fire department to discontinue water rescue training and stop maintaining wetsuits and other rescue gear, a fire chief explained. “The incident yesterday was deeply regrettable,” Interim Alameda Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi said. “But I can also see it from our firefighters’ perspective. They’re standing there wanting to do something, but they are handcuffed by policy at that point.”
Oh, they had to watch because they were handcuffed! Well that’s another…wait, you mean just metaphorically? Then I repeat: nothing was stopping any of the firemen from rescuing the man, except that it wasn’t in their job descriptions, thanks to the priorities of the local government. What else did the lack of policy mean? Does anyone think for a moment that a fireman or police officer who plunged into the Bay and saved Raymond Zack’s life would be fired or disciplined? He would have been lauded and praised, and the incident would have caused an immediate revision of the new “strict policy,” just as it is doing now, except that a man wouldn’t have had to die to make the point.
This incident isn’t about policy or budget cuts, and it isn’t only about dereliction of duty by the police and firefighters. The unnecessary death of Raymond Zack is about an entire community’s lack of compassion and responsibility for a human being in peril. “Golden Rule? What’s that?” The suicide took an hour: if there was nobody in the gawking crowd who could swim—a proposition that I find unbelievable—, a text message could have had a rescuer there in minutes, presuming anyone in the city cared enough to save a life. Nobody summoned help, or if they did, nobody came.
The Golden Gate Rule: “It’s not my problem.”
“We expected to see at some point that there would be a concern for him,” Gary Barlow, one of the motionless bystanders, told reporters at station KGO.
Why didn’t you have “concern” Gary? What was handcuffing you?
Apathy. Callousness. Laziness. 21st Century reliance on the government to do what you should do for yourself. Fear. “It’s not my job.” “I didn’t want to get involved.”
“I don’t really care. I don’t know the guy.”
Are the firefighters and police more culpable than Gary and the Bystanders (there must have been a 60’s band by that name, somewhere)? Sure. They are paid to be heroes. They are in the public protection business; saving lives is their profession. For them to be sitting by the dock of the bay while Raymond Zack’s life ebbed away is especially unconscionable. For them, this was every bit as despicable as the Brooklyn EMTs who let a pregnant woman die in front of them because they were on a break, or the Seattle security guards who stood by and watched three girls brutally beat a woman , doing nothing because they were not supposed to get directly involved in law enforcement matters…more despicable, really, because there were more than just a few individuals on the scene with public safety responsibilities, and because the incident unfolded so slowly. OK, the ethics alarms may have been a little rusty, but if they worked at all, why didn’t they ever go off?
And if they weren’t going to go off, if the professionals were going to check their policy manuals and decide, “Nope, nothing here about rescuing people trying to drown themselves!” then they should have left. Maybe that would have roused at least one non-professional hero to do his or her duty as a human being and member of the community. Or would they, like Gary Barlow, simply shrug and say, “Huh. The police and firefighters left! I expected that there would be a concern. Guess not.”
“I wonder who the Giants play tonight?”
The United States has a daunting mountain of problems. The national debt is poised to crush us, and neither our leaders nor the public appear to have the character or will to address it. The international climate is as dangerous and uncertain as it was during the Cold War, and yet America no longer has the resources, confidence or sense of purpose to assert its traditional leadership role. Major corrosive, long-term crises loom in public works and the transportation infrastructure, the financial sector. the environment, health care and illegal immigration without solutions or even coherent policy in sight. This is all bad enough. But if the United States citizens lose their ability and resolve to do what’s right when fellow human beings are in mortal peril, if our ethics alarms cease to function like they ceased to function on the shores of San Francisco Bay, our society and our culture is doomed. Done. It’s over. And if that’s the way Americans are going to think and behave, it’s just as well.
It is ironic that this revolting display of American callousness occurred so close to Memorial Day. We are losing WW II veterans by the thousands every week, all of whom fought to ensure that there would be an America that acted like America, filled with Americans who had the values of Americans. They wouldn’t have stood by and allowed Zack to drown, and they would have been shocked that Raymond Zack would be allowed to drown anywhere in the nation. I know my late father, one of whose decorations for valor was for rescuing a fellow soldier trapped in a submerged Jeep, would have acted if he had been on the shore. I once saw him jump into a pond to rescue a little girl who had fallen off a bridge. Was it his job? I know what he would have said.
“Of course it was. It’s everybody’s job.”
Not, apparently, in Almeda, California,in 2011.
[Once again, thanks to Lianne Best for the story. I think. Now I'm depressed.]
NOTE: In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly attributed the incident to San Francisco, not Almeda. I apologize to the police, fire fighters, and any other San Franciscans who would have tried to save Mr. Zacks.