Last week, In the early hours of April 18,two teenaged patrons at a Rosedale, Maryland MacDonald’s brutally beat Chrissy Lee Polis, 22, into a seizure. The attack was captured on a video recorded by Vernon Hackett, one of the MacDonald’s workers, on a cellphone camera. Other employees can be heard laughing on the video, and Hackett apparently is heard warning the attackers that the police are coming. He has been fired by the restaurant’s proprietor. (More on this here.)
His firing was well-deserved, but it doesn’t begin to address the disturbing implications of the incident. Though he had no obligation in his job as a McDonald’s staffer to risk injury or liability to intervene in a violent fight, he had a human obligation to do so, as did everyone else on the scene. Instead, Hackett displayed the cold, uninvolved demeanor of a professional journalist, who regards as primary his duty to record the event. Of course, Hackett is not a journalist. Universal access to cell phone video cameras, combined with the opportunity for YouTube fame and maybe resulting riches, now tempt non-journalists to allow tragedies to occur as they act as entrepreneurs and voyeurs rather than rescuers. If Hackett had a blog, he might argue that he was, in fact, acting as a journalist.
America is breeding a culture that encourages individuals observing a vicious attack to think, as a first response, “Wow, I’ve got to get that on video!” rather than “I have to stop this.” That means that America risks becoming a nation populated by self-centered, conscience-free ethical equivalents of the walking dead, who lack the ethics alarms that their ancestors had when they came out of the caves. There is no ethical justification for Hackett’s behavior. It violates the Golden Rule. It exploits another human being for personal gain, one of absolutism’s ethical taboos. There is no system of ethical balancing that would justify it. Yet his conduct is being encouraged by increasingly powerful forces in American culture.
Most of the current debate about the incident has now turned to the question of whether the attack was a hate crime or not, since the victim was a transgendered male. This is the ethics equivalent of arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. By all means, let’s waste time and energy arguing about whether it’s worse to beat a transgendered individual into unconsciousness than to beat anyone else. Is it a “hate crime?” Is someone arguing that Ms. Polis was attacked because the teens wanted to get to know her better? The hate crime designation is about gender and race politics together with criminalizing thoughts and feelings. It is always a false issue, but here it diverts attention from the true significance of the incident. At a point that may not be so far away, there may be a critical mass of Vernon Hacketts in society, and at that point, the United States will no longer have a viable culture. Hate crime laws aren’t going to do anything to stop the trend.