The one with the premium-grade ethics alarms bled to death on the sidewalk. The people who never had them installed at all took pictures. Is this the way it’s going to be?
Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was a Guatemalan immigrant who lived in Queens, New York. His life was a mess; he was destitute, ill, and had no job or likelihood of getting one. When he saw a knife-wielding man apparently assaulting a woman on the street two weeks ago, however, he knew what his ethical obligations were. He rescued her by intervening in the struggle, and got stabbed, badly, for his actions. The attacker ran off, and so did the woman, who didn’t check on Hugo after he fell, and never contacted the police. She also neglected to say, “Thanks for saving my life.”
As Tale-Yax lay on the sidewalk in Queens, slowly bleeding to death, a security security camera recorded the actions of twenty-five New Yorkers, who saw him and walked on. One stopped to take a photo with his cell phone. Another briefly shook Hugo. A couple appeared to actually consider doing something, but decided against it.
Already late for breakfast, perhaps. Maybe an appointment to make. Eventually someone—perhaps one of the twenty-five, perhaps not—called 911, an hour after Hugo was stabbed. Whoever it was, he didn’t leave his name, and he gave the wrong address. A half an hour after that, another call reported a wounded man, and the police arrived. Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax bled to death. He was 31.
The inaction of the New Yorkers who let Hugo die is different from the terrible breaches of duty committed by the Brooklyn EMTs who watched a woman and her unborn baby die. It is closer to the conduct of the Mt. Everest climbers in 2006 who marched on to the summit past a fallen companion, but not exactly like that, either. Many of the passers-by may have been illegal immigrants, as was Hugo. Maybe they were afraid of being apprehended by authorities. There was blood on the sidewalk, and blood might carry infection. There is no legal requirement in New York and most other jurisdictions for witnesses to fellow human in distress to render assistance. The safe thing is not to get involved. Helping out another human being carries risk.
America used to be about risk, but we are losing our collective nerve. The culture has gradually embraced an alignment of values where avoidance of risk nears the top of the list. We will give up some of our freedom to be secure from attack. We will give up our independence to ensure income, health insurance, and other safety nets. The willingness to take great risks for important goals and objectives, which made the existence of the United States possible, is no longer seen as virtuous, logical, or smart.
Where does that leave courage, valor and self-sacrifice? Bleeding to death in Queens, apparently. Officials in New York were not especially surprised at the reactions, or lack of them, from those who saw Hugo. Yes, the decent and responsible thing would be to call 911 (we know at least one of the onlookers had a cell phone) and to stay with Hugo until help arrived. That would require some risk, though.
Schools don’t teach students about courage very much any more. Stories about the miserable treatment of Native Americans dominate the story of how the West was won, not the undeniable courage of the common people who won it (or, if you prefer, took it.) The wars of the 20th Century are increasingly taught as cautionary tales about imperialism, greed or genocide; nobody graduates from high school today knowing who Alvin York or Audie Murphy was or what they did. The earlier wars? Well. you can’t teach about Pickett’s futile and heroic charge, because he was one of the “bad guys” in the Civil War. Schools rarely teach kids about the Alamo outside of Texas: too many slaveholders in that group of 186 (or 220).
It is true that the popular culture, like the legends and mythology of the past, still celebrates heroism and sacrifice. It doesn’t seem to me that this is enough to maintain bravery and courage as cultural values, when all the other societal messages are telling us to be safe, be secure, and above all, avoid risk.
The fascinating thing is that Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, the illegal, down-and-out Guatemalan immigrant, would have fit right in at the Alamo. His life wasn’t much, but it was all he had, and he gave it up to help a stranger. His life, a failure, perhaps, up until its final hour, was given meaning and nobility by his courageous, selfless, ethical act.
I don’t know what it will take to make Americans remember what was once a cherished part of their heritage, that the courage to do what is right in the face of danger and risk is essential to a healthy society and a meaningful life.
Perhaps Hugo’s story is a good place to start.