The Moral Dilemma of Stopping an Assault (Alone)


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I live in a pretty quiet, safe neighborhood in Los Angeles. It’s suburban-ish, but just a couple of blocks from a major Hollywood studio. There are families, but also single millennials. Not much really happens in the immediate vicinity.

Unless you hear a screaming match between a man and a woman which seems to be happening directly outside of your window. A little further investigation reveals that, yep, it is happening directly outside of your window.

I’ll save you the uncensored details of what was being yelled between the man and the woman, but it was enough to make me sit up a little straighter and listen closely. It was clear they know each other (very well), and I was waiting for them to just go in different directions or get a level head.


I couldn’t see what was happening, but I’d had enough when she started yelling “Take your hands off of me! Why are you hitting me?!”

Headphones off, down the stairs, sneakers on, door open.

By the time I got downstairs, she was crying, but they were physically separated. I don’t know what happened, but he was still yelling at her. At least now, from a distance. I stood in the doorway, behind my gate, with my arms crossed – just so he knew I was there. He got on his bicycle and made his way down the road – still yelling.

It was at this point that I asked her if she was okay as she took her own bicycle and started walking it in the opposite direction. “No, I’m not” she managed through the tears.

She didn’t seem physically hurt, though I know she was traumatized.

At this point, I looked around the neighborhood: Not a soul in sight.

Was I really the only person who had come outside to potentially stop something serious from occurring? Being completely aware that this guy could have been out of his mind, or armed, or both, I’d kept my distance – but I at least wanted to make it known that he was being watched.

In my experience, men who are violent towards women typically lose all illusion of confidence when confronted by another man, but that’s a whole different story. The point here, is that I was surprised nobody else even made an attempt to stop what could have been an assault, or much, much worse.

I recall a problem posed to us back in high school, though I can’t recall the name of it. The general idea was that someone was being assaulted in an alley near an apartment building. Everyone looked out the window, but nobody took action. Why? Because they assumed a person in a different apartment would do it. But, what if everyone assumed, and nobody acted?

I find this fascinating, and also disappointing. As a former martial arts instructor, I was always taught that violence should be the final resort in any situation. Diffusion or avoidance of violence is always the goal – which is what I attempted to do by standing in plain sight rather than just running into the street and escalating things. What if I’d found myself in trouble? Who would’ve come to my aide after I’d rushed to someone else’s? What a moral dilemma this poses…

If you saw someone being attacked, what would you do? Would you interfere? Shout from a distance you were calling the police? Throw a rock? This is a serious question that any of us could be faced with at any given time.

I know, for me, I would absolutely act without hesitation if the person in danger was a loved one – but I’m not sure if any of us know what we would do for a stranger, unless the situation actually arose.

I believe that self-preservation and self-defense is key, but at the same time, what kind of world would it be if nobody looked out for anyone else? We would be living in a free-for-all, the wild wild west, The Purge, in real life.

I believe we can diffuse violence without participating in it. I believe we can save others without risking ourselves. I believe we can be cautious, but effective in our actions.

The question is, though: Will we?

Leave your thoughts below, I’d like to know what you’d do in this situation.



  1. elvira l. borlongan on September 7, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    please include me in your site

  2. Annette Shifflett on September 7, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    I once saw a woman attacked at the grocery store by three other women who had her on the ground kicking and stomping on her. They didn’t care who saw it. Some people were videoing while complaining that nobody was helping her, which is ironic. I just said I’m calling 911 and I did. Eventually a very large male employee pulled the beaten woman from the three and then the police arrived. I was surprised how many were videoing on their phones instead of using them to summon help.
    I would have been injured also had I physically tried to stop it but couldn’t have ignored it either.

  3. Jenn on September 7, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    Glad you DID take action and step up, James. Nice to know there’s someone out there who still believes in doing the right thing!

  4. Dennis Saint Aubin on September 7, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    First off James you are the man! You are right to approach that kind of situation cautiously as a domestic abuse situation is one of the most dangerous things a person can face. The domestic situation is always emotionally charged, and people are not in their right minds! The thing that always helped me working the doors over the years was something called the OODA loop. It stands for Observe the threat or situation, Orient yourself towards the threat or situation, Decide and commit to an action, Act, using the proper techniques force or communication. I personally found over the years that my focused presence on the aggressive person would in itself make the aggressor re evaluate their actions. Sometimes just letting the aggressor know you are paying attention to them and their actions will snap them out of focus on the victim. Once you get their attention you can start the de escalation. Again great job James, many people refuse to get involved ( usually out of fear which is a natural human reaction ) You chose to face that fear and uncertainty and let The aggressor know they weren’t going to continue their actions without an audience! Sometimes that’s all it takes!

  5. Ninah on September 7, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    Several times as an apartment dweller I’ve summoned the police about domestic violence going on in an adjoining apartment. Every time one of them (not always the man) would come over and threaten me for reporting them. I’d report them for threatening me. Usually they’d end up leaving. Sometimes the other tenants would be relieved, sometimes they’d tell me I was too nosey. However, I’ve been in a domestic violence situation myself and prayed that someone would have come to my aid. I do not plan on changing what my response.

  6. Emily on September 8, 2017 at 12:06 am

    The exercise to which you are referring is a phenomenon called the bystander effect or Genovese syndrome, named after Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was repeatedly assaulted and then murdered outside her apartment in Brooklyn. Though everyone heard her being attacked, no one helped or called the police, assuming someone else had.

    I’m so glad you did what you did. As a woman, I feel incredibly helpless to do anything myself, so I call the police (though unfortunately they generally arrive too late – but what else can I do as a woman?) if I hear a domestic violence incident. I wish everyone would do what they can, whether it’s making their physical presence known or calling the authorities.

  7. warjna on December 12, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    Years ago I had a situation at work, a doctor’s office. I was out of our room for a moment, and one co-worker called me back in a panic, saying that our male (quite large) co-worker was threatening another female co-worker. I ran back and got between the two, and told the man to back off. He responded that I wasn’t his supervisor and had no right to give him orders. I told him that I was the closest we had to a supervisor as the longest-term employee there, and that no matter what was going on physical violence was not a solution and I was not going to allow it to happen. He moved toward me in a threatening manner, obviously intending to go through or over me, which he could have done as he was a good foot taller than I and outweighed me by at least 50 pounds, but I didn’t move. I barked at him to back off, that I would put him down if he continued, and he stopped. I guess I had broken his fixed concentration on my co-worker, and also impressed on him that I was dead serious that I would put him down if he tried it. That was over 30 years ago now. To this day I don’t know if anyone ever reported it to the doctor or nurse in the office.
    I’m a writer now. One of my characters said this: If you see something wrong, and don’t do anything? It’s the same as if you did it yourself.
    I absolutely believe that, and I’m willing to take damage to stop something. Even at age 64.

  8. warjna on December 12, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    By the way – I grew up in New York. I was 11 years old when Kitty Genovese was murdered.
    That’s why.

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