Sunday, November 27, 2011

Walter Vance and the Expansiveness of Culpability

Want to know what’s wrong with America? Two words: Walter Vance. No, not the man himself, who was apparently a lovely person. No, it was the manner of Mr. Vance’s death in the early hours of Friday morning that ought to send shivers up our collective spines.

Mr. Vance, a pharmacist in Logan County, WV, was shopping for some Christmas decorations for his drug store shortly after midnight, i.e. at the very beginning of “Black Friday,” when he collapsed onto the floor of a Target store in South Charleston. And then… nothing.

Multiple reports suggest that shoppers and employees alike paid no attention, even stepping over him as he struggled for his life. Finally, a nurse and a paramedic who happened to be shopping in the store came to his aid. 911 was called, but Mr. Vance died at the hospital. Frankly, he may not have made it, anyway. He had a history of heart trouble, and, in his widow’s words, “I think it was time for him to go. The Lord called him home.”

But here’s the point: It doesn’t matter. A man needed help, and the overwhelming majority of people who were in position to offer it, even to the extent of comforting a dying man, did precisely bupkes. There was a sale on, after all. Gotta get that crappy over-priced toy or the tacky outfit for a couple bucks less than normal. “Sorry, old man. Geez, would you get the hell out of the way. You’re dying? You think that’s an excuse? Get out of the damned aisle!”

With the exception of the two professionals who did what they could (another report suggests as many as six nurses offered aid), and the woman who apparently fished Vance’s cell phone out of his pocket to call his wife, everyone else in that building deserves coal in their stocking this year: not enough to heat their home with, however. Seriously, how many people don’t have cell phones with which to call 911? How many of the phoneless don’t have a voice with which to demand that someone else make that call? How many of us are really so important that we can’t spare a few words of comfort for a fellow traveler in distress?

There are, apparently, lots of eye-witness reports about other people’s inhumanity. But… uh… if you were there to see it, what did you do to help? Not much, I’d be willing to bet. True, once there’s someone who knows what s/he’s doing on the scene, it’s better to stay out of the way. But stepping over a prostrate body to get to the great mark-downs on Chia Pets doesn’t qualify as ethical behavior.

Target employees told television station WSAZ that “company policy” forbids them from offering physical assistance. (Interestingly, that detail is omitted from the updated written story on the station’s website, but the broadcast story includes it.) This leaves us with two alternatives: either the employees are lying to cover up their own inadequacies as human beings, or there really is such a policy.

It terrifies me that I believe the latter. That sounds exactly like the kind of inanity cooked up by the litigation-shy and utterly amoral jackals that run all too many corporations. Still, that doesn’t let the employees off the hook. A man is dying and you don’t help because you might lose your barely-above-minimum-wage (if that) job at a store that insists you work the graveyard shift on Black Friday because they’ve got to unload their stock of crap that will actually be cheaper in a couple of weeks? Really? That’s what you’re going to tell St. Peter at the Pearly Gates?

Mr. Vance’s friend and colleague Sue Compton sums the whole business up pretty well: “Where is the good Samaritan side of people? How could you not notice someone was in trouble? I just don’t understand if people didn’t help, what their reason was, other than greed because of a sale.”

Christmas in America. Bah, humbug.

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