Cold Water on All Our Throats

We all heard the news about the tragic bureaucratic death of Raymond Zack on Memorial Day. This suicidal man slipped into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay, but not until well over an hour passed as he stood within sight of the beach in waters that lapped at his neck. Bystanders watched in horror as an alphabet soup of first responders simply watched the tragedy. Alameda County and Oakland fire departments were called as well as the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, the Oakland Police Department, and the East Bay Regional Park Police District. All deferred to the Coast Guard, saying that they had no water rescue policy, that their hands were tied. The Coast Guard declined the rescue as the man was in water too shallow to maneuver a boat in.

Eyewitness Sharon Brunetti had this statement in regard to the sad spectacle: “It’s like you are living in a different country that does not care about its citizens.” Instances like this erode the notion that first responders are present to assist the weak and needful of our society. They start appearing to be more in place as hierarchy enforcers. I have tried to stay away from a conclusion like that, but it gets more difficult all the time. I’m still not ready to paint everyone with the same broad brush, but high profile cases like this certainly don’t help the image.

Eventually someone (not a first responder) did go into the cold waters to retrieve the body.

The fact that the man picked such a slow way to die makes me wonder if some part of him wished to be proven wrong about the cruelty of the world. Did he leave a time frame before death, hoping for some kindness to show itself? He didn’t succumb to the lure of the abyss, leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge; he picked something tediously slow. The fact that it was done on Memorial Day begs a few questions, too. This is all backstory, and I’m making assumptions about his intent, but it’s always worth thinking about the humanity behind an action.

All the usual indignation was offered up, and claims to remedy the lack of water rescue plans are said to be in the works. Concerns over lawsuits and “tied hands”! I’m sure it all seemed reasonable to them at the time. Perhaps some will even use the rationale that the man wanted to die; he was simply allowed to, and why should others be placed in any risk? These are questions that the people who were there can grapple with in terms of their own personal ethics. They will have to live with their choice. The reasons being cited for the inaction seem to be myriad and shifting, and that is usually an indication that people have taken part in something they feel ashamed of.

Couple this with the latest images of DC police forces going all Footloose Nazi on the silent dancers at the Jefferson Memorial. It’s probably dangerous to grab people in a violent manner, but in this case the decision was made to power down on the protesters with full force. Nobody said “Sorry, we don’t have a protocol to take down silent, non-violent protest dancers…. let’s just watch.” No, they seemed quite ready to jump into that situation.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand- I have to wonder about the civilian bystanders, as well. Did they simply fall back on the assumption that the authorities would show up with wetsuits and equipment? I’m sure I might have thought that at first, but evidently it was quite obvious during that horrendous time frame that no help would be extended. The first responders (what a term, maybe first observers would be more apt in this case) were just there watching. Why didn’t anyone try to help when it became clear that not one official individual was going in that water? Did submission to authority play into this?

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the Milgram experiments of the 60’s. It’s standard Psych 101 fare, something of an attempt to understand the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. If you don’t remember the experiments, this was the basic set-up: an advertisement was placed in a local newspaper for participants to assist in a study. They were to be paid $4.50 just for showing up, no criteria was made to hinge payment on any sort of performance. The confederate pretended to be someone answering the ad as well, indicating that the roles in the study were being assigned by mere chance. The actual unwitting participant was to deliver shocks to the person they just met, and all by the direction of a white coated authority figure.

The individual being shocked could not be viewed, as they were behind a screen, but they could be heard. The individual administering “the shocks” had no idea that someone really wasn’t being harmed when they pulled the levers. The white coated figure kept encouraging shocks even as the confederate actor yelled in pain. At some point in the study it was leaked out that the person being shocked had a heart problem (just to add to the genius of the study). Still the authority figure insisted that the shocks be delivered. Milgram thought that it would be a small percentage of people who would go to the upper limit of delivery. Shockingly (sorry), 65% of the participants delivered the maximum amount. Most had evidence of agitation and angst, but they still did it.

I can’t help but wonder if this didn’t play a role in the recent drowning death. Were people constrained by the fact that authority figures were not responding? Did they squelch their own internal voice because of this effect?

The other Psych 101 issue that comes to mind is that of the “Bystander Effect”. This was famously exhibited in the violent murder of a young lady named Kitty Genovese. Essentially everyone assumed somebody else would help and if they didn’t…well, the situation just wasn’t as severe as it looked like. Studies have even indicated that the likelihood of receiving assistance goes down when a group gets larger. People always seem to think that someone else will step up, and if they don’t then there must be a good reason not to. This seems a likely culprit in the drowning inaction as well.

As if these tendencies weren’t disheartening enough, consider this: in her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout estimates that 4% of our population has no empathy, and they feel no regard for others. In a society so compelled to reward this type of behavior it becomes obvious that a disproportionate amount of these personality types are in positions of authority, and are in fact, drawn to them. The natural inclination of others to acquiesce to authority breeds situations where others do not help, even if their natural inclination is to do so.

It’s obvious I’m a Mark Twain fan by previous writing, and I think this passage from The Mysterious Stranger is perfect. It deals with crowd behavior and groupthink. He is addressing actual harm and killing, but the same mental mechanisms are in place when assistance is simply withheld. It is that of following the worst inclinations of the few:

“Oh, it’s true. I know your race. It is made up of sheep. It is governed by minorities, seldom or never by majorities. It suppresses its feelings and its beliefs and follows the handful that makes the most noise. Sometimes the noisy handful is right, sometimes wrong; but no matter, the crowd follows it. The vast majority of the race, whether savage or civilized, are secretly kind-hearted and shrink from inflicting pain, but in the presence of the aggressive and pitiless minority they don’t dare to assert themselves. Think of it! One kind-hearted creature spies upon another, and sees to it that he loyally helps in iniquities which revolt both of them”

I am heartened by the fact that 35% of Milgram’s participants would not deliver maximum shocks. Even the ones that did “go all the way” had serious misgivings. We have allowed the 4% to steer our course and all too often infect us with insidious bureaucracies that overall good people don’t know how to break out of.

One poor man died in neck deep water with a whole host of observers. I think it is a fundamental core question to ask: Do we accept this kind of thing, that of not helping our weakest members? It’s the same type of groupthink that can produce overt acts against others, so it is of profound importance to answer this.

The first voice inside is correct for 96% of us. It’s the manipulation and corruption that allows the hell on earth that sociopathy produces- A world of ignoring the needs of the weak and actively harming others, all delivered without empathy. Remember, they only have 4%, but they know how to leverage! Our entire society is neck deep in icy water and unless a profound change in values takes place, it’s likely we won’t make it either. They continue to demand that we adhere to rules of paper they create, and not that of soul. It a revolution that can only be found within, but if enough find the fortitude to break out of this chain of acquiescence the results could shock you.

Kathleen Wallace Peine welcomes reader response. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Kathleen.