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When Apathy Rules The Day

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Tribune-Star, Joseph C. Garza

Our society is sick, not in a twisted and deranged way, but in a manner that’s more subtle, much more dangerous and self-destructive to the moral fabric of our social construct.   Experts have been screaming from the rooftops for years about the detachment children and adolescents feel in today’s modern age of social media.  We’re assaulted 24/7 with a relentless drumbeat of political noise and continuous news coverage that would beat a dead horse not just into the next life but into another dimension eight times removed.  So when something like what happened to me last week occurs, I shouldn’t be surprise.  Distraught and broken-hearted?  Absolutely.   But surprised?  No.  We’re in a downward spiral as a civilization, and unless something changes, it’s only going to get worse before the rebound (I hope) occurs.  


On the way to my federal day job, I was traveling on a county road – two lanes each direction with a divider; 50 mph – when I noticed a dark shape moving slowly across the road.   It was past daybreak and light outside, and I spotted it from at least 150 yards away.  As a I got closer, I realized it was a turtle, plodding across the lane, oblivious to the onslaught of coming traffic.  Horrified, I immediately pulled over to the shoulder, intent on rescuing the animal.  (Quick nature tip: if you see a turtle in the middle of the road, you’re supposed to put it on the other side of the road in the direction it was facing; apparently, they know where they’re going, probably more so than most of us half the time.)   I leapt out of my vehicle and started waving my arms at approaching traffic, pointing at the road and trying to get drivers to slow down.  Even though I was immediately adjacent to the turtle and trying to edge out in to the lane, no one slowed, not even by a few miles per hour.  Even an Anne Arundel County Sheriff’s deputy passed me by in an SUV, looked at me directly as I waved, and kept going, no lights or sirens running.  Thanks, officer.  Glad I wasn’t dying on the side of the road.  In that moment, I was horrified and hopeless because no one was willing to stop, and I knew these people – some looking at their cell phones – intent on only their own concerns, would hit me if I stepped out on to the road.   It was a truly awful sensation, and I was furious, disgusted, and despondent, all at once.  I knew what was coming and could do nothing to stop it.  


Several cars avoided the animal, and then the inevitable happened – a vehicle ran right over the turtle, killing it in a crunching explosion of turtle shell and parts.  It was awful to witness, not only because a creature had been killed, but also because no one bothered to stop or slow down for the man waving furiously on the side of the road.  At that moment, I was so disgusted that I truly wished that I lived away from civilization.  A horrible thought occurred to me – that we are doomed as a society when people refuse to help a fellow human being on the side of the road beckoning for aid.  I returned to my SUV, dejected and hopeless, in tears of frustration, and pondered the larger problem – the absolute apathy that runs rampant in our society.  

According to psychologists, there is something called the bystander effect which “occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.”   I don’t know if that’s what happened in this case, but it does explain the countless tragic stories of people getting mugged, shot, or stabbed as bystanders – often in large groups – earn their name as they stand by and do nothing, often with fatal consequences.  What I am certain about is that there was plenty of time for any of the dozen or so cars that I know saw me to stop and offer assistance.  Instead, they kept on trucking to their destinations, self-absorbed in their own little worlds.  While people may be friendly and compassionate when confronted directly with one another, I think the rush to get from point A to point B – and traveling in general – increases the impersonal sense of detachment, which results in people being less willing to help others in need.  


I understand that some of you might say, “Dude, relax.  It’s just a turtle.”  I get it. I’m also not known as a font of sensitivity.  I write intense, violent, action-packed thrillers for a living, and very bad things happen in those stories, which often replicate or prognosticate events in real life.  But that’s not the point.  As a former Marine officer who spent 10 years with a warrior mindset (it never leaves you, by the way; you just get older) focused on training to kill the enemy or directly supporting those who do, I have an appreciation for life that might be extreme.  I loathe the needless loss of life – any kind of creatures, great or small – with a righteous indignation that I know others who have served feel.  And when that loss of life is caused by apathy, it’s exponentially magnified because in many situations, it could’ve been avoided.  Apathy is insidious.  It’s a killer, a societal cancer that can wreak havoc when it rears its ugly head because it signals a breakdown in our unofficial social contract, the one that demands that citizens help each other when needed, not just when it’s convenient.   

Maybe I’m screaming into the wind just to hear my voice.  I don’t know, but I hope not.  As a Marine who attended too many memorials when I was in Fallujah in 2006, I felt the same level of helplessness – albeit much more briefly – today than I did for 7 months while we watched as the city fell into chaos and carnage before The Surge began in 2007 the week before I redeployed home.  I’m not naïve or idealistic enough to believe that I can change the world, but I can at least help another human being out when called upon.   


On this 4th of July weekend, as we take a moment to celebrate this great republic’s independence with family, friends, and loved ones, let us all take a moment to treat each other with kindness and respect, not in some ABC after-school special way, but in a way that matters, even on a small scale.  Go out of your way to be friendly, especially to those you don’t know but encounter in chance meetings.  And when that moment arises when you find yourself in a position where you have to make a split-second decision to help someone or look away, hopefully, you make the right one, both for the person in need and for yourself.  Happy Fourth of July.  And as always, Semper Fidelis.  

Matthew Betley is a former Marine officer, a recovering alcoholic, and a political action thriller author of multiple novels from Simon & Schuster.  His latest action-packed thriller, RULES OF WAR, which is timely and occurs in the middle of the Venezuelan crisis, comes out 16 July 2019.  He recently appeared on Fox News on The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino to discuss the VA and Open Burn Pits, and RULES OF WAR has been picked for July’s Dana Perino Book Club for Fox Nation.  Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBetley or find him on Facebook.

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