Long flight inspires confessions of a guilty bystander

  • Article by: AMY RUSSELL
  • Updated: September 18, 2012 - 8:00 PM

I should have said something, and I knew it. But like too many I remained silent too long in the face of abuse.

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I failed my fellow passengers on a recent cross-country flight into Minneapolis, and I am sorry.

I sat across from an insufferable man and his traveling companion on the flight, and was subjected to his incessant and inane commentary as we traveled across the country. I impatiently tolerated his abrasive observations as we neared our destination and -- much to my chagrin -- said nothing when he told his mother to shut up, that she was stupid. I sat mute when he loudly called her a dumbass for being unable or unwilling to answer his mindless questions.

I could feel my face flame, my breath quicken, and yet I said nothing. I waited for one of the other passengers to chastise him, to call him out, to acknowledge the abuse, but none did. And so I apologize to the woman sitting across the aisle from me.

When I got off the plane, I continued to berate myself for not speaking up. I stopped in the restroom and played the scene over and over in my head as to how I could have intervened, and wondered what stopped me from doing so. Was I afraid for the woman's safety when she was alone later with this man? Possibly. Was I afraid for my safety, fearing harm from this man for speaking up? Unlikely in this circumstance, since I was surrounded by fellow passengers. Was I concerned about embarrassing the woman? Perhaps. Did I think someone else would say something so I didn't have to? In all likelihood, yes.

Was I worried about what others would think about me for butting in to someone's personal business? I'm afraid (and ashamed to admit) that was the most likely reason.

As I made my way to collect my luggage, I passed the man in the corridor. I put all my mental commentary aside and opened my mouth. I told him that his statements to his fellow traveler were offensive and that no matter how frustrated he was with someone it was not OK to call them what he had. He laughed and said it was OK -- the woman was his mother, that sometimes she was a dumbass. I responded that this was even more reason to be respectful.

Much to my surprise, he apologized and said I was correct. I thanked him for his apology, and with the lessons of my mother echoing around in my head, told him the person to whom he really owed an apology was his mother.

I turned the corner to find the victim of the verbal assault. She declined the need for any assistance, whether in dealing with her son, in getting home or in protective measures in general. She apologized for her son's behavior and thanked me for caring enough to ask.

I walked away feeling relieved that I could verify the woman's safety but continued with self-recriminations for not saying something on the plane when it happened. Later that night, I recounted the incident to a friend. I think he was surprised that I was so appalled at my lack of action. He tried to console me by saying that sometimes people just put their heads down and mind their own business.

That's the problem. That's what was so upsetting for me. I have worked with victims of abuse and violence for 20 years. I know abuse and violence will continue until we all accept our own personal responsibility in stopping it.

I failed the woman in 10D by not speaking up while she was being denigrated by her own son. I failed the man in 10C by not holding him accountable for his actions in public. I failed my fellow passengers by remaining silent in the face of abuse. And I failed others who have been abused and victimized by modeling bystander behavior instead of standing up for others.

What message must I send to those who suffer abuse when I remain silent in their time of need?

We need only look at recent news of long-standing incidences of abuse at Bob Jones University, the Citadel, Penn State and Syracuse University to remind us what can happen when we remain bystanders. Unfortunately, these are not the exceptions -- they are examples of what many victims face every day.

And so I apologize. I will find my voice. I will speak up when others are unwilling or unable. And hopefully, my fellow passengers will do the same.

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Amy Russell is deputy director of the National Child Protection Training Center at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

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