The grisly Lululemon Athletica murder trial in Montgomery County, Maryland, concluded with Brittany Norwood being quickly found guilty of the March beating and stabbing death of co-worker Jayna Murray in the yoga-wear store where they both were employed. Among the key testimony at the trial was that of Jana Svrzo, the manager of the Apple store adjacent to the murder scene, who said she heard banging, screaming, grunts and other someone-is-getting-attacked sounds, along with a frantic woman screaming things like, “God help me! Please help me!” and “Talk to me! Don’t do this!” Svrzo said she called another Apple employee over to the wall to confirm her suspicions, and they heard the voice say,”Stop! Stop! Stop!” and then, “Oh, God! Stop!”
The two Apple employees did nothing.
They didn’t call 911; they didn’t bang on the walls. They waited until the screaming stopped, shrugged, and went back to their business, probably saying something like, “Wow, that was funky!” If there was ever a perfect example of when the Golden Rule is in play, this was it. Would they want someone who overheard them being beaten to death to call the police? Of course. Still they did nothing.
We need to agree on the proper treatment for people like this—self-centered, fearful slugs who can’t summon the fortitude and decency to help a fellow human being in peril, even when it only requires a phone call. They are not quite criminals, but they are significant contributors to the evil in the world, the kind of citizens who accept the benefits of society but won’t lift a finger to contribute to it. This is one of those ethical failures that the law cannot address.
You may recall that “Seinfeld” ended its run with the four ethically inert main characters (but amusingly ethically inert) being sentenced to prison for violating a town’s local ordinance requiring bystanders to intervene when they witnessed a crime in progress. Such a law would be impossible to draft or enforce outside of Sit-Com Land, but the societal condemnation of individuals who allow other human beings to be harmed when they have it in their power to summon assistance is appropriate, and should occur informally, like most enforcement of social behavioral norms.
I don’t want to hire someone like Svrzo. I don’t want her as a neighbor or a friend. If I’m an independent service provider, I don’t want her business; if I’m a banker, I don’t think she’s trustworthy enough to receive a loan. Her conduct is unacceptable in a cooperative society, and the one constructive thing she can do now is to serve as a living lesson to others that there are minimum duties that accompany being part of civilization, and consequences of failing to meet them.
Parents, while they are teaching their children such basics as “Look both ways when you cross the street,” “Don’t take candy from strangers,” “Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’,” “Tell the truth” and “Treat your elders with respect” need to make sure “Always do what you can to help another human being in peril” is on the list. If Jana Svrzo’s mother had made that ethical obligation sufficiently clear, Jayna Murray might be alive today.