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Facing Inaction in Haiti

There was a man—dwarfed, with certain deformities—dressed in church-casual chinos and trying to walk down the sidewalk.

The crowd flocked around him the way schools of silver fish dive behind their front line; they kept a two-foot radius, but dove nonetheless. If he walked left, they swarmed left; if he turned right, they thronged right. When he paused, they packed themselves around him in a half-moon to the street, giggling behind their palms and throwing out finger-pointed arms, recruiting passersby from the sidewalk to come join the entertainment.

It’s a bad intersection in Haiti. It’s right where Rue des Freres slams into Petion-Ville and Delmas dumps out its backwash. The corner where they meet is a weed-strewn plot perching some six feet higher than the tarp stands of the ti marchands who line its border with piles of shiny used shoes.

It was at this intersection I witnessed the worst thing I ever saw in Haiti. Not bodies being pulled from collapsed buildings; not the faces of grief-shocked orphans, not gun-flashing thugs or any of the usual, predictable horrors.

Just a dog being hit by a tap-tap truck, and dying.

I have never repeated this story and I have never written so much as an email with more details, and I still don’t want to do so now because it was so sad and so violent. Suffice it to say: It was awful.

And I was driving, and we were rushed, and as far as I know there are no veterinary hospitals in the city and the intersection was so packed that to stop a car would have been treacherous itself and, more than anything, my tear-blurred glare at the mirror was enough to tell me the dog had no chance of surviving more than another moment or two.

And the worst part—the worst truth—is that when you are seeing so much that is so very terrible, there is a corner of your heart that works very hard to convince you that this, among everything, is normal … is just the way it goes … is a regular tragedy.

But I had not seen quite enough horror to believe that.

The dog was still alive. Not for long, but he did have one more moment. And instead of staying and being there and doing God knows what, I—and everyone else—kept driving.

And I did not speak at all for 20 minutes. And I didn’t eat the entire day.

It’s a bad intersection. I do not quantify the world in terms of evil, but if I did, this is the place I would point to. Every time I go through there now, I hold my breath.

So when we were driving past last week and I looked out the window and saw this man being harassed, my hand flew to my seat belt buckle and I sat straight up in my seat, all action-ready and reaching for the door handle—and then I froze.

The seconds passed. The moment for action stretched farther and farther away, and I was frozen there thinking about how: I wasn’t driving (the excuse that I couldn’t act) and didn’t know how to communicate with the driver (that I didn’t know how to act) and was in someone else’s car, with other people who were rushed and how stopping in that intersection continues to be treacherous in itself. So I just sat there as we crawled past, horns honking, and wished somebody would do something.

But I didn’t do anything.

The man was not under immediate attack, of course; this was not a violent crowd. It was certainly not the first time such a thing had happened to him in his life. I was hardly in control of the vehicle, and the logistics of even getting out of the car and making it to the sidewalk alive were close to prohibitive.

But still. When something is happening that is wrong, someone should say something. Someone should do something. And if you are the one who is there, in that moment, then that someone … is you.

It is the pledge I took.

And I broke it.

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I sat with my fingers curled in the door handle as we drove past and just watched that man and that ignorant crowd humiliating him, trying to rationalize with myself and tell myself all the reasons why it was OK that I wasn’t getting out and intervening. And all the time, the only thing I could hear in my head were the words:

“I swore never to be silent, whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. I swore…”

So here are my words. For the near-nothing it is worth: here is my non-silence. I failed that man. You might say it is a small thing, for we all deal with humiliations day in and day out, and because I myself don’t walk through life assuming people will come to my rescue.

But I believe it is a scale—an equally slippery slope and self-generating staircase. When I don’t act, it is easier to convince myself to be passive the next time around; when I do act, I am reminded each time that I can act, that I must act—that with every step I take toward good, I am building myself a foundation on which I can stand the next time.

I was raised with a healthy dose of Catholic guilt. Sometimes when I read this type of story, I am struck by how the telling of the story seems to be no more than a plea to the listeners to relieve the storyteller of her guilt.

That is not what I am saying here.

What I am saying is that with this event I was reminded once again that so many of us are schooled in thinking we do not have control over our behaviors and over our lives. We are constantly being offered neatly packaged cop-outs for our failure to act, for which no one will blame us.

But they are cop-outs.

I do not believe in guilt beyond the dose required to motivate us to be better.

What I do believe in is that we contain infinite possibilities. And if we accept the excuses most easily available to us, we are selling ourselves—and the world—short.

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