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Evil prospers when good people do nothing

By Kim Sawyer - posted Friday, 13 July 2007

In March 1964, a woman was murdered in a street in New York City.

There were 38 witnesses to the killing of Kitty Genovese, but no one intervened. Only one called the police, but it was too late for Kitty Genovese. Thirty-eight people did not want to get involved. They were the silent bystanders.

The killing of Kitty Genovese shocked the United States. It revealed a society so anonymous and devolved that Good Samaritans apparently no longer existed. The Genovese case generated a substantial reaction, and led to the framing of Good Samaritan laws which remain as statutes of most US states.


Good Samaritan legislation is an attempt to align the civil law with a citizen’s public duty. Most Good Samaritan legislation is protective rather than affirmative. In the US, Canada and Europe, Good Samaritan statutes exempt from liability a person who voluntarily renders aid to another in imminent danger. The Samaritan is protected from any unintended consequences of their action.

Only three US states have affirmative Good Samaritan legislation, which require bystanders to call the police or render assistance to an injured person. Good Samaritan laws then aim to protect the Good Samaritan without punishing the bystander who doesn’t act.

Ironically, however, it is the silent bystander that the civil law is designed to deter. When a Michigan student, Kevin Heisinger, was beaten to death in the presence of five silent bystanders at a bus terminal in 2000, two Michigan legislators introduced legislation to require people witnessing such a crime to be required to call police immediately. Analogous to the Genovese case, it was the inaction of the bystanders that prompted legislators to act.

No one knows more about the importance of the bystander than the whistleblower. For the whistleblower, the administrator who won’t listen, the regulator who won’t regulate and the fellow employee who won’t assist, become the silent bystanders who determine the whistleblowing problem.

It is no coincidence that the maxim of Whistleblowers Australia is the often repeated quote attributed to Edmund Burke that evil prospers when good people do nothing.

The consequences of inaction are often high. A whistleblower informed NASA of problems with the space shuttle more than a year before the Challenger disaster; a whistleblower informed regulators of the problems at Enron more than a year before its collapse; and a whistleblower informed APRA of the problems at HIH more than three years before its collapse. Those who don’t take action rarely pay a price.


Usually, it is the whistleblower who pays the price through loss of employment and discrimination; they pay the price for the inaction of others. The recent case of Alan Kessing, the customs official, who blew the whistle on security concerns at Australian airports, amplifies the point. Kessing acted when others would not. He leaked a report to a newspaper. This generated an inquiry which led to a complete overhaul of airport security.

Last month, Kessing was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence for leaking the report. He paid the price for the inaction of others.

The events of the last month in Melbourne have provided insights into the bystander problem. The excuses offered for the inaction of Alan Didak are the same excuses that most silent bystanders use, the risk in speaking up, he principle of not dobbing and, finally, that we can never anticipate he consequences of inaction, so we can’t be blamed for those consequences. No one could envy the position of Didak, but he chose to be silent.

It is unlikely that any legislation can induce bystanders to do their public duty. We can protect Good Samaritans through legislation, we can possibly require bystanders to call police, but it is difficult to prescribe that someone must render assistance.

The balance between the bystander who acts and the bystander who doesn’t act is a cultural problem. In Australia, we have established a culture where the public duty is not priced highly. Clearly, it is irrelevant to many. Until, of course, they need a Good Samaritan to help them.

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About the Author

Kim Sawyer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Finance, Faculty of Economics and Commerce and the University of Melbourne. He is a committee member of Whistleblowers Australia.

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