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Essay

When bystanders fail

WINTER IS A hectic time on Pitcairn Island: the arrowroot crop is ready for harvesting, as are the wild beans that sprout in profusion, clambering over bushes and twining themselves around tree trunks. The sugarcane, too, stands tall in the wind, and once cut has to be processed within days, otherwise it starts to lose its sweetness.

The tin-roofed shed where inhabitants of the South Pacific island gather for this communal task – crushing the cane to extract the juice, then thickening it into a syrup – is on the fringes of Adamstown, Pitcairn's one, slightly ramshackle village. Swaddling the shed are thickets of banana palms, and it was here, in the mid-1990s, just metres from the whirl of molasses-making, that ten-year-old Belinda was gagged with a T-shirt, held down and raped in turn by two brothers.

I used to pass that shed every day, while covering the trials in 2004 of seven Pitcairn men accused of sexually assaulting children over the previous four decades. The little shack was near a dirt track leading to the courthouse and village, and after I had heard Belinda's account of being cornered in a banana grove, the sight of it always filled me with dread. It seemed to symbolise the darkness at the heart of this community, where young girls had been preyed on for as long as anyone could remember – ever since, perhaps, the Bounty mutineers landed here with twelve Tahitian women, most of them abducted.

Places scarred by exceptionally violent events can feel oppressive, as if the atmosphere were suffused with the suffering of victims. That struck me powerfully when I visited Port Arthur a few years ago, and likewise at Tuol Seng prison in Phnom Penh, where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and murdered. On Pitcairn, living among the rapists and their families for six uneasy weeks, I felt at times like I was suffocating. Even the island itself appeared malign, with a brooding physical presence that was almost overwhelming; climbing the steep, muddy trails carved through the cloying tangle of vegetation, and watching waves the size of an apartment block crash against the cliff tops, I had the notion that this spot – a volcanic rock planted in the middle of the world's biggest ocean – was never meant to be inhabited.

In 1790, however, it proved an ideal refuge for nine of the sailors from His Majesty's Armed Vessel Bounty, fleeing the wrath of the Royal Navy after their celebrated uprising against Captain William Bligh. As well as being a natural fortress, the island had been wrongly charted; it was eighteen years before an American whaler stumbled upon Fletcher Christian and his followers, who had burnt the Bounty to the waterline. Still home to their descendants, Pitcairn even nowadays remains formidably isolated, with no airstrip or safe anchorage and only an infrequent boat service linking it with the nearest populated place, the French Polynesian island of Mangareva, a choppy thirty-two hours away.

That isolation – which almost takes your breath away when you ascend to Pitcairn's summit and survey the nothingness stretching to the horizon in every direction – was, no doubt, a crucial factor in the evolution of the sexual abuse. It may also help to account for the sheer scale of it: British detectives assigned to the investigation – Pitcairn is still a British overseas territory – believe that every girl was a victim, and virtually every man an offender. Yet it seemed to me, while I was on the island, and later, while researching a book on the case, that geography was only part of the picture. It did not explain how children could be treated so brutally, nor did it illuminate the other question that still gnaws at me: why did no one who knew what was happening to the girls – and some of the boys, too, though it's not clear how many – make any effort to halt it?

I found myself reflecting on evil. It's rather unfashionable these days; apart from the odd flurry of interest in the wake of, for instance, Anders Behring Brevik's deadly rampage in Norway in 2011, it seldom figures in public debate. I'd always baulked at the idea of evil, with its supernatural overtones and crude absolutism, but as I immersed myself in this intensely disturbing story, thoughts of it kept insinuating themselves into my brain. I wondered how this strange little place had gone rotten – and how close to the surface of our own societies, theoretically more civilised, evil might lurk. And I asked myself: how many of us, born or thrust into circumstances similar to Pitcairn, would, like successive generations of islanders, succumb to our worst instincts?

Hanging on the wall of my kitchen in Sydney is a wooden shark with real shark's teeth. It was carved by Terry Young who, like the rest of the Pitcairn community, made a good living from the Pacific cruise ships that visit the island in summer. A taciturn mountain of a man, Terry – whose ancestor was the mutineer Edward Young – looked after his ailing widowed mother, Vula, with singular devotion. During the 1980s, he raped a twelve-year-old girl approximately once a week, having indecently assaulted her since she was six.

The girl, whom I call Marion in my book, Pitcairn: Paradise Lost (HarperCollins, 2008), never told anyone what was happening to her; she felt ashamed, she explained to the New Zealand judges presiding over the trials in Pitcairn's dilapidated courthouse. There was, though, no one to tell, for the policemen and magistrates were abusing, too; British diplomats were based thousands of kilometres away in Wellington; and VHF radio and a highly erratic postal system were the sole means of communication. To point the finger, anyway, would have been almost unimaginable in those claustrophobic confines: five square kilometres of rock and a tortuously interrelated population that has long hovered at around fifty.

Until 1999, none of the victims spoke up. As Jennifer, who was raped four times by Steve Christian – a former mayor and the father of Belinda's two assailants, Randy and Shawn – told the British-appointed judges: 'It just seemed to be...how the girls are treated, as though they're a sex thing. Men could do what they want with them. They seemed to be a rule unto themselves... That's the way of life on Pitcairn.'

Jennifer's parents, and other adults, must have known what was going on. Secrets are a scarce commodity on Pitcairn; and besides, most fathers were offending, while mothers had been abused themselves. Yet the majority of parents turned a blind eye; they made no attempt to protect their daughters, and in living memory it appears that only one publicly complained. 'It was shoved under the carpet,' according to Charlotte, another of Steve Christian's victims. 'It's an act that everyone on the island knew was happening, and nobody wanted to say it was wrong and deal with it.'

Indefensible though that may be, parents were not the only adults who could have intervened. For much of the twentieth century Pitcairn had a resident New Zealand teacher, and also a Seventh Day Adventist minister, sent out from Australia or New Zealand – the locals had converted to Adventism in 1890. Many of these people, who lived at the heart of the community for two years, working and socialising alongside the islanders, became aware of the children's plight. Allen Cox was one of Marion's teachers; returning to Pitcairn in 2003, at the height of the scandal, he observed in an email to his son, Andrew: 'I have no doubt the guys are guilty as sin. The sexual abuse has been going on from the time of the Bounty.' Walter Ferguson was the pastor during Cox's first stint; his wife, Phyllis, was approached by a parishioner whose daughter, a friend of Marion's, had been raped. Like Cox, the Fergusons took the matter no further.

Two teachers tried to warn the British government in the 1950s that something was amiss, but were not taken seriously. And that was it: none of the other outsiders posted to Pitcairn in a professional capacity ever relayed their concerns. The children were left to their fate, and when the veil of silence was finally lifted, it was not by a parent, or teacher, or minister of the church, but by Belinda, the girl in the banana grove. She was still just fifteen years old.

 

ANCIENT PETROGLYPHS GOUGED into a cliff face indicate that Pitcairn, perched midway between New Zealand and Chile, was occupied by Polynesians from about 800 to 1400 AD. Why they departed is not clear; at any rate, the place was empty when the mutineers alighted with their Tahitian 'wives' and six native men. Modern Pitcairn's birth was soaked in blood; within a decade, all but one of the men were dead, murdered mostly in quarrels over women. The sole survivor, John Adams, then embraced Christianity, and the island, after being rediscovered, became renowned for its piety – which is one reason Britain, after hoisting the Union flag in 1838, left it largely to its own devices.

But while the community displayed a virtuous face to visitors, reports filtered out of incest, rapes, abortions, wife-beating, illegitimate births and unexplained 'accidental' deaths; by the early twentieth century, a pattern of girls being 'seduced' or 'broken in' by adult men had established itself. Those girls, in more recent times, included two sisters, Isobel and Jeanie, whom I interviewed in New Zealand in 2007. While talking to Isobel, I realised we were almost the same age, and I contemplated the cruel lottery of birth. One spin of the wheel and you were condemned to a nightmarish childhood on Pitcairn; another spin and you grew up in a loving family in England.

From the ages of nine and seven, respectively, Isobel and Jeanie were raped by Terry Young's elder brother, Brian, one of thirty alleged offenders identified by detectives. By the time the abuse came to light, some of those men were dead or too frail to stand trial; ten ended up going to court – seven of them on the island, where they comprised two-thirds of the adult male population; three in New Zealand, where many expatriates live. All except one were convicted and five of them were jailed, serving their sentences in a purpose-built prison on Pitcairn. Brian, who spent the longest behind bars, was released after just over two years. (Invoking 'unique' circumstances, the judges had been extraordinarily lenient.)

During the 1970s, Brian would arrive at the sisters' house on his motorbike and, with their mother's permission, whisk them off, supposedly to help him collect firewood. He would then drive them to an old hut in a secluded location and assault them in turn, sometimes in front of each other. How could he – how could any of the men – do that to children? Dimly, I've come to understand, I think, some of their motives. There was the sense of entitlement, created by Pitcairn's swashbuckling history. There was the macho culture, which encouraged sex with young girls as a mark of virility. There was the ingrained nature of the abuse, which was handed down from father to son, and there was the isolation, thanks to which men felt untouchable. Isolation may also have dislocated the islanders from mainstream social norms, albeit only to a degree – from 1914, when the Panama Canal opened, they were travelling to and from New Zealand regularly.

How did the abuse of children become routine – virtually institutionalised – in the British colony? I found myself reading about the atrocities in Rwanda, Cambodia, Nazi Germany; while I draw the parallel very cautiously – no one died on Pitcairn, although countless lives were blighted, and two sisters committed suicide in mysterious circumstances – what those places have in common, it seems to me, is the way darkness seeped into every corner of the society. And in each instance, the evil – if you want to call it that – was, on some level, state-sanctioned, which presumably explains why it proliferated so vigorously.

Cruelty, though, begins and ends with individuals, and most of us could not envisage taking part in killing, torture and genocide. Adam Morton, a professor of philosophy at the University of Alberta, Canada, argues inOn Evil (Routledge, 2004) that evildoers have to overcome an innate aversion to harming others. Ideology can assist in breaching the barrier, he writes, and so can ethnic prejudice, group dynamics and a prevailing culture. Several of those factors were at play on Pitcairn, where child abuse was – if not openly condoned – widely tolerated; certainly, there was no stigma attached. Closer to home, dozens of men participated in orchestrated pack-rapes in the northern Queensland town of Ingham during the 1970s, with the community's knowledge and tacit acceptance.

In Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty (Penguin, 2011), Simon Baron-Cohen advocates that evil be understood, primarily, as a lack of empathy; a Cambridge University professor of developmental psychopathology, Baron-Cohen also contends that a circuit within the brain determines where we all lie on an 'empathy spectrum' of zero to six degrees. (Psychopaths score zero.) Yet as Stanley Milgram's experiments at Yale University in 1961 demonstrated, empathy can be readily suspended: under orders from an authority figure, two-thirds of his subjects administered what they thought were potentially lethal electric shocks to other participants.

The evidence, moreover, suggests that empathy does not necessarily preclude sexual offending, according to Paul Wilson, a forensic psychologist and professor of criminology at the Gold Coast's Bond University.

 

MY FIRST IMPRESSION of Pitcairn, on stepping out of a longboat crewed by the men facing trial for raping and molesting children, was its mundanity. Adamstown, apart from its setting, could have been a nondescript rural settlement in Australia, and the islanders had similar preoccupations: the state of their crops, petty feuds, the weather. I would bump into the defendants between court appearances; they seemed like ordinary people leading ordinary lives, and yet – according to the women giving evidence by video-link from New Zealand – they had committed acts of barbarity. It was as if two parallel universes co-existed on this surf-battered chunk of rock: one humdrum and one blackly terrifying.

The men did not look like monsters – but then, what do monsters look like? As I watched them trade jibes and banter in the village square one day, Hannah Arendt's oft-quoted phrase 'the banality of evil' came to mind. The German-American philosopher wrote that Adolf Eichmann and 'so many...like him...were neither perverted nor sadistic...they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal'. An estimated half a million people took part in the Holocaust, and afterwards the majority reintegrated with ease into civil society; it is 'very normal human beings who commit the most atrocious crimes', remarks Paul Wilson, who has studied the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. Wilson, when I spoke to him, drew an analogy between sexual abuse and genocide, noting that in both cases the perpetrators 'have no deviant personality characteristics... They're not psychopaths, and they suffer no recognised mental illness. We might like to see the evildoers within our ranks as being exceptionally different from the rest of us, but I don't think the empirical evidence shows that.'

Are we all, then, capable of such deeds; does 'the line dividing good and evil [cut] through the heart of every human being', as Alexander Solzhenitsyn asserted? And if so, how much influence does environment exert, as opposed to personality and genetics? In The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil(Random House, 2007) the American psychologist Philip Zimbardo – who built on Milgram's work with a notorious experiment at Stanford University in 1971 – asks: 'Are we born good and then corrupted by an evil society or born evil and redeemed by a good society?' An alternative perspective, he suggests, is that 'each of us has the capacity to be a saint or a sinner, altruistic or selfish, gentle or cruel, dominant or submissive, perpetrator or victim, prisoner or guard'.

Zimbardo set up a mock prison at Stanford, dividing his students into inmates and jailers, and was dismayed by how swiftly the guards' behaviour deteriorated. For him, circumstances are decisive; torture was rife at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, he believes, not because of 'a few bad apples', as American military commanders claimed, but because 'we put good apples in a bad barrel'.

What makes a barrel go bad? With its bloody history, extreme isolation, lack of social constraints and minimal external supervision, Pitcairn seems a classic example of a place where evil was likely to thrive – in the absence of a meaningful rule of law, powerful men made up their own rules and the island population went feral. Yet there is little reason to suppose that our own societies are, fundamentally, more robust. One theory has us 'nine meals from anarchy', liable to degenerate into violence and looting if food supplies were disrupted for just three days – that may need to be revised following the riots in half a dozen English cities in recent times, which required no such provocation. Writing about the Holocaust, the American rabbi and theologian Richard L Rubenstein observed 'how fragile are the bonds of civility and decency that keep any kind of human community from utter collapse'.

 

IN 'THE ONES Who Walk Away from Omelas', a short story by Ursula Le Guin, the inhabitants of a utopian city all discover, on coming of age, that their privileged existence depends on the misery of one child incarcerated in a filthy basement without sunlight or human contact. Although initially appalled, most people reconcile themselves to that knowledge; a handful, unable to countenance it, walk away.

On Pitcairn, viewed as a paradise by outsiders since the early nineteenth century, adults put up with their daughters being abused because – despite the remoteness and rugged conditions – the lifestyle was uniquely appealing. Everyone had a 'government job' and a salary; the islanders paid no income tax, and with no one looking over their shoulder they enjoyed a rare degree of freedom. They also received fan letters and sacks of gifts from around the world – from Seventh Day Adventists, South Pacific junkies and Bounty mutiny enthusiasts. Who would give that up?

One who walked away was the mother of Isobel and Jeanie, who returned to her native New Zealand, taking her husband, a Pitcairner, and her children with her. The only parent to make a stand, she had complained to the local council about Brian's behaviour; the councillors, though, had ignored her, and afterwards her family had been ostracised. Other parents attempted lower-key tactics. One father offered a fellow islander a collection of his wooden carvings to sell, if he would only promise to leave his daughter alone.

Most parents stayed, and perhaps they succeeded in convincing themselves that nothing was wrong. Denial is a typical response to child abuse; on Pitcairn, where the community relied on its men to unload supplies from the ships that anchored offshore, often in mountainous seas, it was a necessity. And it was not just male brawn that kept the community afloat; everyone had to co-operate, which meant avoiding conflict and accepting societal norms, however warped. As a result, that most elemental of impulses, to protect one's young, was stifled by many parents, it appears – to be supplanted by an almost pathological attachment to place, and a determination to remain there, whatever the cost.

As the twentieth century was ending, the spell was broken: emboldened by the presence of a visiting English policewoman, Gail Cox, Belinda revealed for the first time what happened near the sugarcane hut. Despite the subsequent investigation unearthing multiple victims, some as young as three and five, locals insisted that theirs was a laid-back Polynesian culture and the girls had been willing sexual partners. Parents pressured their daughters, warning them that if men went to jail it would be impossible to crew the boats and the island would have to be abandoned. More than half the women withdrew their statements.

Among those who resisted was Belinda, and although she had the satisfaction of seeing the Christian brothers imprisoned, she paid dearly for it. I met her in 2008, in a weatherboard cottage in New Zealand; she had been disowned by her entire family – parents, grandfather, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Belinda knew she would never be able to go home, even to visit, so reviled was she on Pitcairn. Her mother had testified against her in court; her father had let slip that she had nearly drowned in a well as a toddler; she had not been right in the head since, in his opinion.

While such conduct is unforgivable, it is difficult to know how harshly the parents, generally, should be judged. They were handicapped by their own experiences and their stake in the Pitcairn myth; as they were related to both victims and offenders, their loyalties were excruciatingly split. There is no doubt that parental abuse and neglect are not confined to Pitcairn, and that childhood is less cherished in the developing world. I remember being shocked to learn, while investigating child sex tourism in South-East Asia, that most juvenile prostitutes are sold to traffickers by their parents. The latter claim that the money earned by their daughters enables them to support their other children.

Although Pitcairn was not a third-world country, the islanders were focused, in an immediate way, on survival, and boys and girls of twelve or younger were expected to perform quite arduous chores. That they were also perceived as sexually available – and that their welfare was trampled for the sake of community cohesion, and to safeguard the Pitcairn way of life – is an unpalatable reality of this story.

 

IN STUDIES OF genocide, protagonists are categorised as victims, perpetrators or bystanders. In Nazi Germany, the last were the millions of ordinary Germans who knew Jews were being systematically annihilated; in Rwanda, it was the international community that stood by as an estimated 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis, were slaughtered. On Pitcairn, there were three sets of bystanders: parents, who were hopelessly compromised; British colonial officials, who seldom visited; and teachers and ministers, who were, arguably, the most culpable.

It is a worse thing to commit evil than to contemplate it and look away. But how much worse? When I think about the girls who were the equivalent of Omelas's sacrificial child, it is the outsiders' role that troubles me most. I'm haunted by their silence, and I'm ever more acutely aware of how frequently we fail, most of us, to confront wrongdoing and injustice – and I scrutinise my own actions and find myself wanting.

Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century philosopher-politician, reputedly declared that 'all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing'. Those words – even whether he uttered them at all – are disputed, but the moral truth they convey seems to me blindingly important. For while there are comparatively few evildoers in any society, there are multitudes of bystanders, and what they do – or do not do – is critical. Bystanders facilitated the Holocaust, and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and many of the other horrors that punctuated the twentieth century. Their inaction – our inaction – also perpetuates more everyday evils such as domestic violence and racism, which often go unchallenged by the vast mass of people who are neither perpetrators nor victims.

Philosophers like to debate whether acts and omissions are equally blameworthy; the Pitcairn affair demonstrates that omissions can have dreadful consequences. Tony Washington, who taught on the island in the early 1990s, suspected that girls were being mistreated; in New Zealand, he told me, he would have alerted the authorities – since this was Pitcairn, where such things 'seemed to be a fact of life', he 'didn't think there was anything I needed to report'. After Washington left, the rapes and assaults continued: not just of his former pupils, who included Belinda, but – as the years went by – of successive waves of children.

Barrie Baronian, dispatched to Pitcairn by the Adventist Church in the mid-1990s, soon picked up on the sexual offending; indeed, he and his wife, Debbie, sent their fourteen-year-old daughter home to Australia. However, they did not notify the church hierarchy, or British officials, that girls who lived on the island were in peril. It felt like 'too big a thing...to cope with', Debbie confided, and she added: 'There's also in your mind that that's Pitcairn Island, that's their life, that's the way they want to be.'

Washington, Baronian and others who ran the church and school were professionals entrusted with the children's well-being. Unlike parents, they were not hamstrung by convoluted family ties or trapped in an intergenerational cycle of abuse; unlike, say, dissidents in Argentina or Soviet Russia, they did not risk torture or death by speaking up. They could have put a stop to the abuse years ago, yet – apart from exhorting each other to keep an eye on their own daughters – they said nothing.

Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford University experiment, believes 'the failure to act can...be a form of evil, when helping, dissent, disobedience, or whistle-blowing are required'. In The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil (Charles C Thomas, 2005), Stephen J Bartlett describes mass killers and bystanders as 'two sides of the same phenomenon'. And Roy F Baumeister, an American social psychologist and the author of Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (WH Freeman, 1997), writes that victims 'depend on bystanders to bear witness to what is happening and to take a stand against it. It is the only way.'

Unfortunately – like Tony Washington, who 'just did my job and minded my own business' – most of us exist in a bubble. Thirty-eight witnesses saw James Bulger – the little boy abducted near Liverpool, England, in 1992 – being pushed around by Robert Thompson and John Venables, who went on to murder him; not one of them reported it. In a survey by the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, fewer than half of respondents said they would take action if presented with unambiguous evidence of neglect or abuse. Last year, according to the Weekend Australian magazine, hundreds of motorists sped past a six-year-old autistic boy, Kieran Le Couteur, as he tried to cross the Princes Highway near Geelong, Victoria. Only one telephoned police, and it was already too late.

Away from the headlines there are daily tugs on our humanity: an elderly, confused woman wandering in the street, a man kicking a dog, a homeless person in need of food. Much of the time we avert our gaze and walk on – too busy or self-absorbed, too fearful of confrontation or social embarrassment, occasionally worried about our own safety. We delude ourselves that not seeing equals not knowing, or we assume that someone else will intervene: the classic example of that syndrome, which psychologists call 'diffusion of responsibility', is the rape and stabbing of Kitty Genovese outside her New York apartment block in 1968 as possibly dozens of neighbours looked on. The existence of 'Good Samaritan' laws in certain countries, compelling people to help those who are in danger, indicates, perhaps, how far we fall short of doing what ought to come naturally.

In The Contract of Mutual Indifference (Verso, 1998), Norman Geras, emeritus professor of government at the University of Manchester, argues that if we disregard the suffering of others, we cannot expect others to come to our aid. But if 'not to remain a bystander...[is] the queen of all the virtues', as Geras maintains, how wide are our responsibilities and how much of our lives ought we to devote to them? We cannot right every wrong we come across, solve every crisis we read about; the well of human misfortune is bottomless, and sometimes we simply have to close our eyes. Consequently, as Adam Morton, the Canadian philosopher, put it to me in a Skype interview: 'Just about everybody is an accomplice in evil, everybody plays their little part in some large-scale bad stuff.'

Rather than feeling paralysed by the boundless duties of not being a bystander, we could try to address the small injustices we encounter day to day. For to be passively good, or actively to do no wrong – not hurting others but not helping them – is surely not good enough. Simon Longstaff, executive director of the St James Ethics Centre, says that it is relatively easy to lead a 'conventional moral life', as opposed to an 'ethical life' characterised by unceasing reflection. 'If you live an examined life,' explains Longstaff, 'you know why you're doing things; you're constantly asking why, and is it good or bad. You create more space for an underlying conscience to be heard. An ethical position requires moral courage, and it requires you to be committed not only to acting, but thinking about what action is appropriate and effective.'

 

WHAT OF EVIL? My feeling is that if this tricky little word serves a purpose, it is to highlight behaviour so heinous as to demand its own category. While the abuse that riddled Pitcairn certainly fits that definition, I don't believe that the perpetrators were intrinsically evil – rather, they were unremarkable people who acted on the violent impulses nearly all of us experience. As Hannah Arendt realised, evildoers are generally not sadists or psychopaths, nor do they resemble monsters; they look like you and me. Says one pastor posted to the island after the trials: 'I suspect they [the Pitcairn men] are not much different from the rest of us, and that's the problem.'

There was a fourth set of protagonists in the Holocaust: those who risked their lives to shelter Jews and help them escape. The 'rescuers' exhibited the very best of human qualities: who were they, and what were their motives? According to Norman Geras, who has reviewed their testimony, they came from all walks of life – every social class, political affiliation and educational background. Some were Christians, others atheists. 'Only one thing stands out: they all subscribed very strongly to a universalist ethic,' Geras told me. 'They believed that human beings are all equal, to be treated properly and with respect, and you don't do things to people just because they're Jews or gypsies or whatever.'

How broad is your moral universe? Imagine a diagram with concentric 'circles of concern' emanating out from you at the centre, says Simon Longstaff. Some people care only about themselves – that's one slim circle; others care about family, community, nation – three more circles. Yet others extend their concern to all humanity, or all life, or even, like Indigenous groups, all creation. The rescuers did not consider themselves heroic; according to Geras, 'they saw it as an elemental human duty to help another person in danger...many said, "I just did what anybody would have done."' In fact, less than half of one per cent of the German population did what they did; to Geras, nonetheless, these extraordinary individuals represent an 'alternative possible ethical landscape', one where mutual aid would replace mutual indifference, where 'an obligation to come to the assistance of others in danger or distress was widely felt as amongst the most powerful of imperatives'.

On Pitcairn, there were no rescuers – not of the children, anyway. But these men performed rescues at sea: plucking strangers from shipwrecks, saving locals swept off rocks by freak waves. They were propelled, I think, by instincts etched into their survivalist DNA, but also, presumably, by altruism. The island was not all bad – the old and the sick were always looked after – and had the men grown up elsewhere, in a place less conducive to the flourishing of evil, they would probably have been different people. Whether the trials had a purging effect, and whether a different kind of community – one that values its young and shields them from harm – can be built in that same spot, is another question.

Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved almost twelve hundred Polish Jews from the gas chambers, was a bystander initially. Although 'in many ways a scoundrel', at a crucial moment he chose to stand up to evil, Adam Morton notes. Does Schindler's transformation prove that we all have the capacity to become rescuers? Philip Zimbardo, for one, is convinced of it. Just as evildoers are ordinary, average people, he says, so are the perpetrators of heroic deeds; countering the 'banality of evil' is the 'banality of heroism'. Zimbardo would like every one of us to see ourselves as 'a hero in waiting who will be counted upon to do the right thing when the moment of decision comes'. It's an ideal worth aspiring to.

The names of all victims in this piece have been changed.


From Griffith Review Edition 35: Surviving © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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