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My Humanitarian Intervention, A Morality Tale in US

January 23rd, 2014

Those who read my writings would probably get the impression that I’m very strictly non-interventionist and somewhat cold-hearted.

But those who know me in person would see a more complex side of me. I actually do help people a lot, beyond my work. I tutor students of poor background. I donate blood. I even volunteer at a local food bank to prepare meals for the homeless.

So perhaps I believe on interventions on a personal level or for some specific goals. I don’t know if that’s true.

Perhaps 1 of my recent experiences of morality tale in US would better illustrate the lessons of interventions more clearly.

It was only Yesterday. DC snowed overnight, and the metro rail lines were packed in the morning. I came into DC via the Blue Line, which for the unfamiliar is typically packed with high powered lawyers and Lobbyists (those who do not drive) who get off near K Street.

The train was packed that morning. At Foggy Bottom stop, on comes an elderly homeless man in a wheelchair. He was dirty and missing both his legs, and he was chatting with an invisible friend.

He rolls onto the train, and wedged his wheelchair between a vertical pole and the train door.

The train door closes, but his wheelchair jams the door and prevents the door from closing all the way.

The door opens, and attempts to close again. Jams again.

And again.

And again.

The homeless man speaks to his invisible friend, as if pleading or asking something.

There were about 20 or so K-Street commuters in that section of the train compartment, and no one moves.

They were all standing far away from the homeless man as much as possible.

Silence in the compartment while the door tries to slam close behind the wheelchair that was stuck with 1 wheel barely outside.


At that moment, I stood up from my seat, walked over to the homeless man, and pulled his wheelchair just enough to bring it inside the train, allowing the door to close.

In hindsight, what I did was somewhat stupid and unexpected, even by my own standards.

The homeless man reacted to me violently, raising his right hand, he slammed his fist on me couple of times.

I raised my hands open, and said to him, “Sorry, just trying to help.”

Then I walked back to my seat and sat back down. Afterwards, the homeless man became quiet.

The whole interaction took less than 30 seconds.


Looking back, I still rattled that 30 seconds in my head, wondering what happened and why?

It felt like a surreal scene, where a compartment full of people were just stone figures, who watched the interaction between the homeless man and I.

They did nothing, they said nothing, they were just frozen in their observation.

I wondered, what were they thinking? How did they judge my actions of that small intervention?

I know why they didn’t intervene. They were afraid of the precisely the kind of reaction I received.

I also know why they said nothing. There was nothing to say.

For a second there, I also calculated that there was that risk to me for that intervention. Clearly, the risk was great. There was no way to estimate how a homeless man with clear psychological problems would react. And what if he had weapons on him?

So, why did I intervene??

First, I have no need for grand gestures. I didn’t do it to make any kind of moral statement.

Second, my reason was to more to help the others on the train and myself, because the train couldn’t move until the door closes. (Indeed, DC metro has a rule that if they can’t close the doors, they have to unload the entire train, potentially delaying the entire line). I just wanted to get the train moving, which is what everyone wanted. It’s part selfish, but it’s mostly for others, because I could have also just gotten off the train for an alternative line or even walked.

Third, I estimated that the risks/costs to me was not that great, that if I minimized my intervention, the risks would be reduced.

What’s the morality lesson?

I took couple of blows for the good of many commuters. That was my trade off.

All and all, it was worth it.

I am unconcerned of the long term impact, because I have no idea whether ultimately this helped the homeless man at all. For all I know, he went onto cause similar problems on another train.

But I could only do what I could do at the moment, to give a little help to someone who clearly needed the help and who couldn’t help himself.

What the bigger lesson?

Intervene only when necessary and necessarily beneficial relative to the cost.

If I considered the man to be more dangerous, certainly I shouldn’t intervene, because doing so might endanger not just myself but everyone else around me, potentially escalate problems. In which case, it would be better to get a professional security person to handle the situation.

Many folks simply don’t intervene because they perceive the risks to be higher. But in turns out, my estimation was good enough.

There are no heroes or losers when properly intervened with minimum efforts.

This is similar for international interventions or humanitarian interventions.

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