What would you have done?

“What would you have done?” A friend put this question to me recently in the circumstances of an incident in a Clonmel public car-park, in which she became involved. Her involvement was natural, compassionate and immediate, but what surprised her was the reactions of some other people to what she had done.

“What would you have done?” A friend put this question to me recently in the circumstances of an incident in a Clonmel public car-park, in which she became involved. Her involvement was natural, compassionate and immediate, but what surprised her was the reactions of some other people to what she had done.

First: my friend is, like me, an elderly woman. She is a retired hospital ward sister with very considerable experience, especially in casualty departments. A few weeks ago, she left her home at noon to meet and to have lunch with another friend. They had both just ordered in the restaurant when she remembered that she had left the lights on in the car. “Back in five minutes,” she explained, as she left for the car-park.

As she was opening the door of her car, she noticed four male teenagers, obviously having a loud-mouthed argument, coming towards her. They were fine strapping healthy young fellows, she said, aged about 16 or 17. Just as they reached her car, one, very angry, hit one of his companions in the face with his clenched fist. The boy fell to the ground into the space between her car and an adjoining parked car.

My friend, surprised and shocked, shouted ‘STOP’ and then facing the other three, who were sniggering, told the assaulter that he should be ashamed of himself, and that what he had done was dangerous and disgraceful.

A now very, very angry young man shouted obscenities at her, and said that what he had done, he would do again. And so saying, he ran at his prone companion and kicked him on the ground. My friend heard the impact of the kick while still standing at the open door of her car. Then all three youths ran away, laughing loudly as they went. All of this at lunchtime in a public car park.

All her experience in casualty departments came back to her. “I’ve seen such terrible damage, so many life-changes, resulting from exactly such assaults,” she told me. She went to the boy on the ground. He was bleeding from his nose, and the area around one eye indicated some distress. He was confused, dazed and not quite coherent. She, fearing damage to his sight, asked him if he could see. He wasn’t quite sure.

She looked around in search of some help. There was a man sitting in a car directly opposite the site of the incident. She assumed he must have seen the assault, but he chose not to connect with her silent appeal. “I thought he was smirking,” she said, but then she admitted that she could be a bit “hung-up on smirks.”

With her help, the boy was able to sit up, and after a little time, he stood up, and she helped him to a nearby low window-ledge, where he sat down, still in a state of shock, still bleeding. She took a packet of tissues from her handbag, and was trying to mop the blood, when another, much younger, woman, arrived. She had seen the entire incident from the other side of the car park.

She did what my friend was just about to do - she telephoned the garda station, stressing the “elderly” nature of the woman who was trying to deal with the situation. And two guards duly arrived. My friend reported what she had seen and done, and then left. Arriving back in the restaurant she was told by her now worried friend that the five minutes had in fact extended into 34-40 minutes.

But it was what came afterwards, in the form of comment and opinion, that surprised her, and me.

She should not have interfered, friends and acquaintances said, when she told them of her experience. That which she (and I) had perceived as a normal, helpful, civilised response, had become interference. And it seems that interference has become a pejorative concept. It is meddling. It is unwarranted intervention. It is sticking your nose in where you are not wanted. It is being a busy-body. And it is life-threatening.

Think of what could have happened to her, some people said. The angry young man could have turned on her, hit her in the head, kicked her when she lay prone on the ground. He might even have had a knife, and just think of the terrible consequences. And no, don’t call him a young, thug, because that would be judgmental.

And then, some people said, that she might have been called as a witness in a subsequent court case, where a clever defence lawyer might patronise her as a doddery old woman who hadn’t quite seen what she thought she saw. Or, then again, that she, by shouting ‘STOP’, had made a bad situation worse.

Leave it to the professionals, was the advice. Don’t interfere. (My friend was, in fact, a professional.) This was not a majority verdict on her response; most people applauded her, but it was a significant reaction.

And it begs the question: Have we become so accustomed to anti-social behaviour, to ugly gratuitous violence, to youthful thuggery, and are so intimidated by it, made so fearful of it, that doing the right thing is perceived as unwise intrusion, a dangerous interference? By accepting its apparent inevitability, have we given it tacit facilitation?

A few years ago, I travelled (in a bus) on the dusty, sun-drenched road between Jerusalem and Jericho, where the Good Samaritan took care of the “man who fell among the robbers.” Has that classic ancient story of doing what is right because it is the right thing to do, become so overladen with fear and legalism, that it is no longer or relevance in the streets of the capital of Tipperary?