BEIRUT: If news broadcasters, social media users and casual gossipers expressed shock at the brutal stabbing death of George al-Reef near Gemmayzeh last week, the inaction of multiple bystanders who witnessed the attack has been roundly decried as shameful cowardice.
Video of the attack, which was perpetrated in broad daylight, shows more than 10 witnesses to the crime, many fully grown men, walk out of their shops and doorways and passively watch Reef suffer blow after blow.
Aside from the rage directed toward the assailant, Tarek Yateem, much public outrage has been focused on the witnesses who failed to stop the attack.
But bystander apathy is, in fact, a well-documented phenomenon whereby those witnessing a crime fail to help a victim.
In fact, “the individual is less likely to offer help when there are more bystanders around him,” explained May Obeid, who has a Master’s degree in psychology. “When you’re around people, and you’re all witnessing a crime, you might think, ‘I’m not going to do something about it because maybe the other person will do something,’” Obeid explained. In social psychology, this apparent paradox is called “diffusion of responsibility.”
“The bystander effect is not to be underestimated,” agreed Nidal Najjar Daou, a behavioral psychologist and an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut. But there may well have been other factors at play beside diffusion of responsibility.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if people who were watching this did not imagine the stabbing would be as vicious as it was ... maybe they thought it would be a bad fistfight,” Daou said.
“At the same time, if they did see the stabbing it might be harder to assist, because somebody had a weapon,” she added.
Ketty Sarouphim-McGill, an associate professor of psychology at the Lebanese American University, said the bystanders “were either too afraid or they thought, ‘you know, this is none of my business.’”
Worse, if bystanders fail to intervene in an attack, the perpetrator may feel that he has “an audience” and be further encouraged.
But Nayla Nahas, an assistant professor of psychology at Balamand University, cautioned against assuming that the bystander effect was the only way to explain witness inaction in this particular incident.
“In [this] case you have ... in peoples’ minds a whole context of confusion regarding what’s happening in Lebanon that may influence their behavior and reactions. You have different political issues, different let me say marginality issues that people are afraid of, especially in the presence of foreigners in the country which may inhibit them from intervening in fights taking place in front of them,” Nahas said.
She was quick to point out that the bystander effect was defined and described primarily in a Western context, and that it may not be the most appropriate explanation of bystander passivity in other cultures.
“You have a specific context that can be different from the bystander effect which has been studied in America or Europe.”
Nahas questioned whether the Lebanese have become increasingly desensitized to violence because of the bloody images circulating on national and regional media outlets almost daily.
Moreover, it’s difficult if not impossible to predict how one will react to a violent confrontation, Nahas explained, suggesting that it might not be fair to harshly criticize the unassertive bystanders.
“Actually we never know what we will be doing when we will face the situation. It will depend if we are rushing to go home, if we have our kids with us. ... We never know what our spontaneous reaction will be.”
Sociologist Sari Hanafi, however, said that the passive witnesses are a “symptom of individualism.” “Gemmayzeh is the epitome of Lebanese consumerism and [has] deeply embedded individualistic values.”
The residents of the neighborhood, he noted, tend to be young, cosmopolitan and independent. Witnesses may well have intervened if the attack had taken place in an area with a more constant population and stronger sense of community.