What could we have done?

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve been going over and over in my mind what’s been reported about a recent murder on the Washington Metro.

For those who didn’t hear about it, or perhaps missed the details, let me recap: A knifing took place in the early afternoon on the 4th of July aboard a train heading toward the National Mall for the Independence Day celebration. 

Apparently about a dozen people of various ages were on this particular train car. An 18-year-old (later reported to be 5’ 5” tall and 125 lbs.) grabbed the cell phone of a 24-year old passenger, who resisted the theft.

The grabber punched and kicked the victim until he collapsed, and proceeded to stab him more than 30 times with a pocket knife, leaving him to bleed to death on the floor. The murderer then robbed the other passengers before he calmly walked off the car at the next station. He was found and arrested two days later.

It’s a terrible tragedy and a horrific scene to contemplate. But in the world we live in, it could happen in front of — or to — any of us at any time. In broad daylight, on an ordinary Metro car, without warning, we could be confronted by a murderous assailant, or we could be eyewitnesses to such an attack.

I can’t stop asking myself, “If I had been a witness, what would I have done? What could I have done?”

Some of the passengers told reporters that everyone else huddled together at each end of the railcar as the attack took place. When some passengers suggested perhaps they should do something, others sharply disagreed, pointing out that police say bystanders should not try to intervene in such cases.

One person tried to call the train operator to ask for help, and the assailant, who appeared to be high on drugs, apparently threatened him and told him to shut up.

Clearly, everyone was afraid for their own lives. They felt powerless, and hunkered down in self-preservation mode. No one who wasn’t there could judge them for their behavior. We all might well have done the same thing.

And yet, did it have to be that way? If the victim had been our child,  grandchild, spouse or parent, would we be so philosophical about the sensible advice not to get involved?

Let’s imagine instead that the other passengers, gathered at the end of the railcar, had been able to quickly decide on a strategy together. 

Perhaps one would run screaming at the assailant, using his backpack or laptop as a shield. Another would go charging at him with two umbrellas. Someone would try to buckle the fellow’s knees and knock him to the ground. Still others could try to grab his arms or wrest the knife from his hand.

Meanwhile, the rest of the passengers would be ready to jump on him and pin him to the ground until the train reached the next station and security guards could take over.

True, any one of those people would be crazy to lunge at the attacker alone. But together? Even were all the bystanders terribly out of shape and unfamiliar with self-defense, could the attacker have overpowered ten adults at once?

Again, I’m not criticizing those who were there for any failure to act. It all unfolded so quickly, and they didn’t have the opportunity we now have to consider all the options in advance.

But now I’m talking to you — and to myself — and asking this question: Having learned of, and thought about, this incident, can all of us — and I do mean each and every one of us — make a decision, right now, not to remain aloof if we should ever find ourselves in a similar situation? (And I do mean similar: I’m not talking about a coordinated terrorist attack or taking on someone armed with a gun.)

It may require one of us to act as a leader, to rally everyone to the cause. But multiple followers are equally essential. In fact, it may be the expectation that others will follow that gives the leader much of his or her courage. 

A Washington Post columnist took many “online second-guessers” to task for writing bravely online about “the heroic ways they claim they would have dealt with the attacker.” She noted how easy it is to be a blowhard after the fact, if you weren’t there. It’s all just easy talk, she implied.

But I think such talk can be a good thing. If each of us will imagine now what we could do in such a situation, then maybe, just maybe, a future criminal can be stopped in his tracks, and a life can be saved.