CHICAGO — Though I’ll admit to being the first to blast knee-jerk reactions to news headlines, I’m also willing to recognize how our best instincts can turn us into a horde of holier-than-thou windbags.
Take the public tar-and-feathering of R. Umar Abbasi, who quickly became the villain of the week because of his chilling photograph of a man about to be run over and killed by a New York subway train.
The victim, 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han, had been pushed onto the track. A homeless man has been charged in the case.
The first stabs of anger were directed at the New York Post for publishing and publicizing a photo of a person about to be killed. But the outrage quickly turned to Abbasi, a freelance photographer who was painted on social media networks, comments sections and talk radio as an opportunist for having snapped pictures instead of attempting to save the man.
Abbasi explained to multiple media outlets that not only was he wearing a backpack loaded with camera gear — presumably limiting his ability to run toward the victim, jump down to rescue him and then pull himself and the full-grown man out of harm’s way — but he was not actually taking pictures.
As part of the crowd began running away from the vicinity of the impending tragedy, Abbasi said, he stretched his arm out into the tunnel and started clicking away in an attempt to get the motorman to stop the train in time.
Abbasi also said that had he been able to reach the man in the 10 to 15 seconds during which the incident played out, he would have tried to pull him up.
The driver of the train did slow down because of the flashes, though not enough to save Han’s life. And the picture that ended up in the next morning’s Post got there after Abbasi had handed over his images to the police.
Naturally, the photo inspired anger. We humans are experts at making judgments — especially snap ones based on little information, any sense of context, or mechanism for predicting how we’d really react in any given high-pressure situation.
Some will bemoan that the ugliness, cynicism and hatred directed toward Abbasi is a result of our national obsession with gravity-defying action-movies and ultraviolent video games where every common man has super powers.
There’s probably some of this involved. More so, the outrage (uninformed as it was) is a commentary on our collective hero complexes: Many of us truly believe we’d instinctively put our own lives at risk to help another at the first sign of trouble.
And while angry pockets of morally superior armchair Samaritans don’t collectively make our corner of the world a better place, a sub-population of heroes-in-waiting is more or less tolerable.
Let’s just hope some of them can respond if called — and that the good intentions of those who are more vocal than heroic are never tested.
Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino contributor.