No one would stand by and let dozens of people be killed, right? Wrong. Actually, it happens all the time and not just for gang related crimes, but with terrorist attacks.
In a study conducted a few years ago of 119 lone actor terrorists by Paul Gill and John Horgan, the authors (shockingly) discovered that in the vast majority of cases in the days and weeks leading up to the attacks, in 82.4% of the time, other people knew something about the terrorist’s grievances and/or intent. In 79% of the time people were aware of the terrorist’s commitment to an extremist ideology and in 64% of cases, family and friends were aware of the plot because the terrorist told them! Finally, in a majority (59%) of cases, the terrorist produced letters or made public statements outlining his beliefs. These statements include both letters sent to newspapers, self-printed and self-disseminated leaflets, and statements in virtual forums.
Orlando terrorist Omar Mateen’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman, admitted to the FBI she had been with him when he purchased the ammunition and a holster for the gun. In one instance, she even drove her husband to the gay nightclub, Pulse, because “he wanted to scope it out.”
Yet Noor did nothing to prevent the tragedy. Like in so many other cases described in the study above, she stood by and let her husband murder 50 people in cold blood.
While this is not a unique example of the so-called “bystander effect,” it certainly is among the more shocking ones that someone could have, but chose not to, lift a finger to prevent such an atrocity. In most cases, fear of the potential repercussions of what would happen to them if they reported a loved one that planned to commit a terrorist act is paramount. Williams, Horgan and Evans refer to this as hindering ‘vicarious help-seeking’ in which friends and family can potentially intervene to help a radicalized individual seek help and prevent an attack.
Horgan explains further, “People don’t act because they convince themselves that what they see is not serious enough to report — or they’re just afraid of speaking to the police.” Another reason might include that we are hesitant to infringe on other people’s privacy. Some politicians think this is political correctness yet the study of the 119 lone actors included terrorists of all shapes, sizes, colors, and ethnicities. This isn’t political correctness; it is the assumption that someone else will take care of the problem. In other words, passing the buck.
Fear of the police has been a key factor in previous studies of the bystander effect. When crimes are committed, most people “didn’t see nuthin’” when questioned by the police, and that in many communities there is a veil of silence. Much of the bystander effect studied in different communities relates in part to existing (negative) relationships with the police or the authorities. This is exacerbated by concerns that anyone who alerts the authorities of an impending attack themselves becomes a ‘person of interest’ or might be blamed if the attack is not prevented.
The bystander effect refers to the phenomenon that an individual’s likelihood of helping decreases when passive bystanders are present in a critical situation. Psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley coined the term after the infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in New York City. Dr. Horgan admits, “We need to first stop thinking that all terrorism can be prevented. It cannot. This is a fact of life today and we have to live with it.” We do need to create better mechanisms for reporting events before they happen, like confidential hotlines. When I worked for the New Jersey Office of Counter Terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, one of the first programs created by the then director Sidney Caspersen was an 800 tips line for New Jersey (1 866 4 SAFE NJ). Many people (especially members of the Muslim community) called the number and lots of bad things were prevented as a result. We need to encourage people to call the authorities, even when it is a friend or a family member because the failure to do so will result in the deaths of innocent people.
Is Noor responsible for her husband’s actions? I would argue yes, if not as a co-conspirator or accomplice after the fact, she most certainly displayed criminal negligence and reckless disregard for 50 lost lives. She is responsible for her inaction and we need to send a powerful message that if you see something, say something and if you know something specific you must come forward.