Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Responsibility to Act"

When I worked for the Religious Action Center, my friend & coworker Micaela taught a workshop to high schoolers about the conflict in Darfur. The program began with an icebreaker to get the students moving around & interacting with one another - but it had a deeper purpose, too. Micaela would read aloud potential scenarios & the kids were asked to step to one side of the room if they believed they had a "responsibility to act" upon the situation; they stepped to the other side of the room if they didn't. Scenarios ranged from things like seeing a mother verbally abuse her child in the grocery store to hearing someone yell "Help!" in an alleyway to disagreeing with lawmakers' decisions. The idea, of course, was to get students thinking about what their obligations are to their fellow human beings.

Since then, "What's my responsibility to act?" has become a sort of jokey mantra among friends. You know: "Hey, that woman shouldn't be seen in public with such a heinous haircut. What's my responsibility to act? Should I tell her?" That's a dumb example, but you get the idea.

The other day, though, I had a real-life "responsibility to act" moment, & I've been thinking about it ever since.

Some friends & I were sitting on a patch of grass in Harvard Square when a four little girls came running over to us. They ranged in ages from 4 to 10, I'd say, & the littler ones were full of chatter: "I like your feather earrings!" "Why do you have a tattoo?" "What's your names?" We talked to them for a little while, even letting them play with our iPhones: "You don't have any fun games!" one of them declared in disappointment. They were cute & entertaining & all the fun things kids that age are when they don't belong to you.

After a few minutes of talking to these kids, a man came over to collect them. "Are you their dad?" my friend asked, to be sure."No," he replied, deadpan. "I'm a molester."

OK, are you having the same reaction here as we did? Because... What. The. Heck. If that was a joke, it wasn't a funny one - & if it wasn't a joke, why the hell did we let those charming, beautiful little girls walk away with him? When one of the girls ran back to whisper something to my friend, I asked her who the man was, & she told me he was their uncle. "Do you want to go with him?" I asked, but I didn't know how to convey what I really wanted to ask: "Is he hurting you?"

The girls left with their uncle & met up with some other adults across the park, where they seemed happy & free from danger. But for a minute - a few minutes, actually - I was on the verge of marching up to that family, telling them what had just happened, & demanding that they A) be sure that uncle is not, in fact, a molester, & B) school him in the art of appropriate joke-making to be sure he never says that again.

I can't stop thinking of those little girls. Was that uncle a "funny uncle," after all, or just a sad man with an unforgivably unacceptable sense of humor? I'm never going to know, & I can't stop thinking about my responsibility to act. Should I have said something? What would you have done?
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