On being willing to stop a rape – whatever it takes.

(Thanks to my colleague Ian Ohsberg for bringing up this incident as a matter worthy of writing about here.)
This past week the Canadian media have been full of news about a horrific incident that occurred in British Columbia. According to the reports, a sixteen year-old young woman attended a party where someone drugged her. She was then taken outside to a field where several men raped her. The exact number of perpetrators is unknown to police at this time. What is known, however, is that there were several witnesses to this horrific incident, including one young man who took photos of the attack and put them on a social networking website. The pictures spread almost instantly around the globe. 
The young woman’s father was later quoted as saying that the dissemination of these photos only served to add to his daughter’s trauma. He begged people work to remove them from cyberspace.
Discussion since this incident has followed two themes: the first is “How could bystanders not intervene?” And the second is “How could someone even think to post this stuff on the internet?” Much of the commentary around this second question has been around issues of privacy and our desensitization to violence in the internet age.  Other people have covered those issues far better than I can. What I want to discuss here is why bystanders often fail to intervene when they see something horrible occurring. I have given this question a great deal of thought. I have read the research on this phenomenon. And I have come to the following conclusion:
No matter how you dress it up, it’s really just cowardice.
When we see something brutal occurring, we have two choices: to intervene or not to intervene. And the sad reality is that when danger stares us in the face, far too many of us will choose to look away. We will cover our wilful avoidance with platitudes about how “discretion is the better part of valour.” But allowing the rape of a young woman to proceed uninterrupted is not discretion, it is an abrogation of our duty to protect the physical, psychological, and spiritual integrity of our fellow human beings. When we see but then ignore a young woman’s suffering at the hands of others, can we really still be said to belong to what we presume to call “the human family”? 
This sounds a little harsh. What about the concept of “diffused responsibility” and other highly-researched phenomena that sometimes emerge in cases like this? I would suggest that while those things might play a role, the idea of that “someone else will deal with it” is actually an afterthought, a nearly-immediate self-justification that I make after I have chosen not to intervene.   And, at the end of the day, my excuses will little matter to the person whom I am choosing not to help – the person who is being beaten, assaulted, raped.
Several years ago a high school student was walking down the street of a rural town in the Pacific Northwest. Two men came up and began to beat him because they hated the fact that he was a young gay man and that he had founded the local high school’s gay/lesbian/straight student alliance. News reports later said that several adults drove by in their cars as the beating was taking place, but that none of them stopped to intervene. A few days after this event I was in a training for men who were interested in working against sexual and domestic violence. As we talked about the incident, several of the men admitted that they did not know what they would have done if they had witnessed that situation. They could not say for sure that they would have intervened.
At that moment the facilitator of the training got angry. “I think you guys are cowards!” she announced. “It makes me wonder what you would do if you happened to walk by and saw someone raping me. Would you even do anything to try to stop it?
Again several of the men admitted that they did not know if they had the courage to intervene. Hearing this, she said:
“Well, it really doesn’t matter how much you guys learn about rape if you are not going to do something to stop it! If you’re not going to work to stop it when you see it happening right in front of you, then what is the point of you even being here at this training?”
Her remarks were met with silence from the group of shamed men. For her part, the facilitator looked at us with a mixture of pain and confusion in her eyes. Like she simply could not understand where we were coming from. Like she simply could not understand why – if we saw a man raping her – we would even consider not intervening. One man finally broke the silence:
“If I saw that happening,” he said, his voice quivering with emotion, “If I saw a man raping you, I would do whatever it took to stop him. Whatever it took.
As I think back to that conversation, I remember that man. And I think to myself that if I ever see a sexual assault occurring before my very eyes, I want to be that guy – the guy who stops it, whatever it takes.