During my commute on a Geneva tram one morning, a woman started to faint. Everyone standing around her tried to help, first to sit and then to lie down. The alerted driver stopped the tram. An ambulance arrived shortly. In another world, a government official in Texas was arrested for helping three young Central American migrants. They had flagged her down on a Texas highway and she went into her “total mom mode” by letting them into her car. While the woman was calling friends for advice about getting medical help - one of the siblings appeared to be seriously ill - a sheriff’s deputy pulled up to her car shortly followed by a Border Patrol officer, read her the prerequisite civil rights, and then took her to a holding cell where she was detained for three hours. She was informed that she could be found guilty of transporting illegal aliens.
What is the difference between the two Samaritans? The people in the tram responded to someone in dire need. The tram conductor understood that neither the tram’s time schedule nor the other passengers on board mattered. He did all he could to make sure that maximum care was given to the woman as soon as possible. (Note that no one in the crowded tram complained that they would be late to work or asked why the tram hadn’t continued to its normal stop.)
The woman who stopped for the three children was also responding to what she thought was a situation of dire need; one of the young Salvadorans was eventually hospitalized for four days for starvation, dehydration and infected wounds. “I have two teenage boys,” Ms. Todd was quoted in the New York Times. She recounted that the boy who ran out of a ditch and waved at her looked very much like her youngest son. “I turn around and go back [to pick them up], because I can’t leave a kid on the side of the road. I can tell she [one of the siblings] needs immediate medical attention,” she explained. (Note that at least one other car had gone by without helping or picking up the children.)
The people in the tram were directly in contact with the woman who fainted. Although no one seemed to know her personally, the other passengers instinctively helped her to try to sit down and eventually when that failed to lie down on the floor. The woman who drove back to pick up the three El Salvadoran migrants was not in direct physical contact with them while driving. When she saw them and realized they were just kids, like her own, and that one was in physical trouble, she responded, perhaps not as instinctively as the people in the tram, but she responded. As she said, her “total mom mode” kicked in.
Why can’t we all have our “total mom mode” kick in? Why can we be so generous in certain situations, such as helping the woman lie down in the tram? When and why are we Good Samaritans?
In writing the article on Ms. Todd and the Texas story, Manny Fernandez has a rather simple answer to why Ms. Todd may be prosecuted and why other cars drove by without stopping: “the government has begun taking a ‘harsher approach’ to prosecuting such cases since President Trump took office,” he wrote, referring to comments by a federal prosecutor in the region,
The distinction between immediate help and other forms of assistance are crucial here. “You have to look at the entire context of the case,” the prosecutor is quoted as saying. “Was it at the person’s house? Were they spending the night? It’s more than just giving somebody on the side of the road some water.”
The distinction between just given water or driving someone to a hospital is quite different from giving shelter to people in one’s home. “Harboring is a big jump for them to make in my book,” the local sheriff said. “There’s a human component to this…if somebody’s hungry or thirsty or needs some help, we’re going to help them,” he added.
That the U.S. government has taken a “harsher approach” to prosecuting such cases has had a negative effect on people helping others. “There is something bigger at stake than just me here, because this does send a message to try to chill people from helping others,” Ms. Todd said. In Arizona, a member of the aid group No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes is on trial for leaving water, blankets and food for migrants. The instincts of the people in the tram and the actions of Ms. Todd are to be commended. When, where and how each of us perceives our obligations to others has become more and more complicated with globalization. Duties Beyond Borders is Stanley Hoffman’s classic account of applying ethical principles in international relations. The internet has made us closer and closer, but what does that mean in terms of obligations and responsibilities? Are we really one village?
My fellow passengers on the tram and Ms. Todd are excellent reminders of how we would like to react in situations of need. Stories such as Ms. Todd’s are uplifting and at the same time perplexing since she faces prosecution. It is not easy to be a Samaritan today; our duties beyond borders are more complicated than just helping someone in need in the tram.