The Seattle Beating Tape: “Just Following Orders”

I know the Nuremberg defense when I hear it, and this is the Nuremberg defense.

The release of a January security video from a Seattle transit station has triggered a public uproar, and no wonder: it shows a group of girls brutally beating a young woman, including kicks to her head, as three security guards stand by, watching, doing nothing. Well, not exactly nothing: they did call for help.

Gee, thanks, guys. Would you tell them to bring some aspirin, an ice pack and a stretcher while you’re at it?

Seattle officials say that the guards appear to have done their job properly. The training manual the guards follow says “Never become involved in enforcement actions.”

The Nuremberg defense, that’s all it is. “We were just following orders.” I’ll concede this: standing by and letting a human being get beaten when you could intervene is better than doing the beating yourself because you were told to, but not much. In both cases, the one “following orders” is breaching the basic human obligation to prevent harm to another when it is within his or her power to do so. This was no less an outrage than the two Brooklyn EMT’s who let a pregnant woman die in front of them while they munched bagels on a break. (They are, by the way, back at work and on the job, whatever their version of “the job” may be.)

I know about liability. I know about possible danger. I know it’s a recession, and jobs are scarce. None of this excuses standing by and letting someone get stomped and kicked within an inch of her life. No respectable ethical system supports such a lack of kindness, empathy and responsibility. From the elegant simplicity of Reciprocity and the Golden Rule, to the most pragmatic balancing principles of Utilitarianism, to any rationale definition of duty, three security guards must take active measures to stop an attack on a helpless human. Would they follow their manual if a small child was being beaten by older children? If a young girl was being raped? Is there anything that would shock them into thinking, “The hell with my training: if I stand by and let this happen, I might as well be an accessory to the crime”? Kitty Genovese’s neighbors shut their windows against her screams for help, but every one of them was less culpable than the Seattle security guards, who were on the scene, who were public employees, whose yellow vests announced to the victim that they were there to ensure her safety,

Employees need rules, and society needs citizens who know when the rules don’t make sense, when following them is wrong, and when decency and common sense demands that they be broken. In particular, society needs such employees in the jobs that involve protecting the public. The public trusts them, you see. It trusts them to help, not “just follow orders.”

In her statement to the authorities, the girl who was beaten said she felt threatened by a group of teens in a shopping area above the tunnel. She said she warned three guards that she was in danger. “I thought that the security guards would defend me,” she said.

They should have. It was their ethical duty, and the combination of a training manual and the Nuremberg defense is just not an acceptable explanation for why they didn’t.

13 thoughts on “The Seattle Beating Tape: “Just Following Orders”

  1. Jack,
    Though we are in complete agreement with the meat of your message, I have a slight prejudice against Kitty Genovese comparisons. The case was a tragedy in the worst kind, but it doesn’t quite epitomize the “bystander effect” dilemma people suggest.

    The Genovese attack happened over the better part of an hour and while it was witnessed by over a dozen people (though nowhere near the 38 initially reported), most had no clear idea of what was going on and, those that did, appear to have tried to take action. Unfortunately, not one of the witnesses saw the whole of the attack, and most of those who did had no idea she’d been injured. Moreover, the police received numerous calls but were seriously understaffed and, mistakenly, considered the reports low priority.

    Kitty Genovese died because of a breakdown in communication (and a perversely sick individual), not because no one cared.


  2. I agree with that, Neil. At this point, the real Kitty G. story is only tangentially related to what it has come to represent in our cultural narrative: isolation, apathy to suffering, letting the other guy do it, not wanting to get involved.

    I do think the truth lies somewhere between the original assumptions (I am old enough to have read the original accounts) and the more recent deconstructions of them. Don’t you?

  3. Jack – Thanks for this post. Was just over at Bob’s and he directed me here. I can’t help the tears from rolling down my cheeks as I read. This is just an outrage!!! What feeling human being could stand by and watch this? Last summer I witnessed a young man yelling at a young woman with a toddler over her cutting the line. (I think she didn’t see him standing there.) When an elderly lady asked the young man not to speak so disrespectfully in front of the child, he got in her face. This is when I got in the conversation, politely taking the young man by the arm, leading him away from the line and speaking with him. He admitted that he could have handled himself differently. But at first raged that I seemed to be taking the young woman’s side. It wasn’t about taking sides but about his response. He apologized, got in his car and left. There is NO WAY I would have been able to sit and watch a young woman being beat and not respond in some way whether I was on duty or not. By the way, when I returned to the Dairy Queen later on in the week the manager remembered me and gave me a free cone with sprinkles. There are benefits of doing the right thing, although this was not my reasoning. 🙂 Thanks again for the post. It’s thoughtful indeed.

  4. What a wonderful story, Judith. I’m not sure how the universal duty to step in and help those in need leaves some people, or what it is in our culture that leeches it out of the soul. Maybe the beginning of the solution is sprinkles…making sure that we give proper thanks and approval to those, like you, who do the right thing.

  5. I remember being a kid riding my bike with some friends one summer day. We were in 5th grade and saw a girl in our grade get pushed down by a boy (I think he was in the 7th grade at the time) over a dispute about a swing at the park. We immediately got in the bigger kids face and kept him from doing anything else. Even though none of us particularly liked this girl even at that young age we were able to figure out what to do in a situation like that.
    If the right thing to do is crystal clear in 5th grade, how could these “guards” let this happen?

    • It’s a profound question. We are, many scientists believe, inclined by evolution and genetic make-up to want to help others. But fear, the wrong cultural messages and “orders” can blunt our instincts.

  6. The sad thing is, that had the guards taken action, they probably would have been fired. These situations tend to be self-selecting. When people are forced to work at a job with such terrible restrictions, the decent people leave and only the callous remain.

  7. Contrary to Neil’s comment about the efficacy of the Kitty Genovese comparison, I think it’s right on point. The media went crazy about the regular citizens who did little to help Kitty when she was being attacked… now we have security guards and EMTs (all who in some fashion are sworn to “protect and defend”) standing by doing nothing as citizens are attacked or at serious health risks BECAUSE IT’S NOT IN THEIR JOB DESCRIPTIONS? If this latter group does nothing, how can you denigrate the “normal” folk who are afraid to act in the face of danger?

    Please, people. The average citizen is supposed to jump in and help people but the sworn-in “protectors” of various kinds worry about their jobs instead of helping people? From whence have we come? And what does this bode for the future?

    This is the kind of thing that leads jurisdictions like the Commonwealth of Virginia to pass “conceal and carry” laws for firearms. If you can’t trust your “protectors,” whom can you trust?

    And we wonder why there is such a backlash against the powers that be? What would it have taken for three big security guards to get between a bunch of sadistic teenage girls and one defenseless one? Not much. But oh my, not their job description. They should be fired, without pension. When job description becomes more important than one’s humanity — and all the supposed instincts that go with it — then one has no business even pretending to offer “security” — to the subway, to a plant, to a sock. I wish them ill, and that is not my nature. But they deserve it.

    As for the EMTs, they should be fired, too. And I hope they are a rarity, because I surely wouldn’t want to have to call an EMT to my house and have them show up 30 minutes later because they were “on break” while my parent/husband/child lay dying.

    Too long a response, as usual. But these stories keep coming up — schools, the “climate change” lies, etc, etc. Are we really becoming a nation of liars, totally amoral, selfish, sadistic people? It worries me… a lot.

  8. Pingback: The Duties of Citizenship, Ethics, and the Happy Rape Victim « Ethics Alarms

  9. Pingback: Ehics Hero:Liev Schreiber, an Actor Who Understands the Duty to Act « Ethics Alarms

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