(This essay is reprinted here from a column I used to write for The Beach Reporter in Manhattan Beach, CA. Even though I wrote it twenty-five years ago, it still seems appropriate to post.)
Living in a country where individual freedom is valued so highly is something most of us treasure. In the news every day are stories of individuals standing up for what they believe are their God-given rights. Presumably they are able to do so because of the democratic system we operate under.
The individual right to choose a religion, to choose where we want to live, to marry or have sexual relations with whomever we choose, to carry a picket sign against the spraying of malathion. These are all rights that we as individuals take for granted.
Of course, individual rights are not left completely up to man’s will. As a society we do recognize that there must be laws and rules governing some of our actions. These laws are carried out on the premise that they are for the “common good.” Such laws as those prohibiting minors from purchasing alcohol or operating motor vehicles, preventing people from purchasing firearms on a whim, or preventing us from raising roosters in our yards are agreed on by consensus.
Then there is a gray area. A big gray area. In fact, the whole issue of individual rights could be regarded as a gray area. As some would say, “Your individual rights end at my front yard.”
Most of us live in close proximity. We may not know our neighbor’s name, but we have a pretty good idea of his comings and goings. We may get to know the neighbor, and agree or disagree with his politics, his religion, or the fact that he raises pit bulls. And we may or may not be able to discuss these issues with him.
But there are “certain topics” where we seem to draw the line on getting involved. Domestic violence is a big one, child abuse is another. We might file a complaint against someone who parks his boat on the lawn, or whose dog chases your kids. But would you file a complaint if you suspected that the person was nightly hammering on his wife and kids?
I’ve never been in that exact situation, but I suspect that each of us “knows” about someone who is hurting or in trouble. It may not be someone in our neighborhood. It may not even be someone we know personally. You hear about something, and then go home, disturbed. But at what point do you take action, if ever? And should you?
I’d like to present a fictional scenario. A friend takes you out to lunch. She is very upset that a fellow employee’s personal life is affecting her work performance, and she doesn’t know what to do.
“She has come to work during the past year with a broken arm, several black eyes, weird bruises, etc. Also, she misses work quite a bit and seems very distracted and nervous. When I ask her about it she says she is just under a lot of stress, but that she is getting it together.” Your friend then goes on to say that this woman (a single mother) was formerly a candidate for management, and about a year ago got a divorce, and is now living with – in your friend’s words – a real creepo.
Your friend strongly suspects that this woman, and possibly even her children are living in a state of terror. There are probably drugs involved. Her approach so far has been to let the woman know that there is help available through an insurance program at work. She has also told her, as her boss, that her performance has to improve or she will be put on probation.
“I feel terrible,” says my friend. “But what can I do? Force myself into their lives? I feel that the guy is a nut case, and I don’t want him coming after me.”
So know you know about it too. And you feel truly terrible for this woman, but what can you do” You don’t even know her! Nobody could expect you to get involved.
Consider a recent story in the L. A. Times. A woman was found “incoherent, bruised, and confined in a boarded-up room” where her husband, father, and step-m0ther also live. No criminal charges were being filed yet because there wasn’t strong enough evidence to prove any wrongdoing. When she was found, she was locked behind a door that had a small window cut into it, with steel bars inserted. I guess maybe they wanted to wait for a body as evidence.
Back to the original question of rights. Does a guy have the right to keep his wife locked up in a room if he wants to? Does a parent have the right to abuse drugs and alcohol and leave her kids alone all night while she is out partying, and then the next day when she has a hangover, beat on them to shut up?
And do we who hear about these things second, or even first-hand have the responsibility to get involved?