Friday, February 4, 2022

Killed by Indifference: A Challenge to our Collective Conscience


It was my last day in Paris in October of 2016, and before I left for the airport to return home to Boston, it was my goal to walk from my hotel across the street from Sorbornne University to the Saint-√Čtienne-du-Mont Church near the Pantheon in order to venerate the relics of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. I had to leave early in the morning if I was to make it on time. By my calculations, it should have taken around 10 minutes to walk, but I didn't take into account that most of the walking would be uphill. And another surprise awaited me that early Tuesday morning. Along my path I had to walk over the bodies of a family of sleeping refugees or homeless people (husband, wife and two children). The busy street was too narrow to walk without risk, so when I saw this family sleeping on the sidewalk, I had no choice but to walk over them to arrive at my destination. For all I knew they could have been dead, they were so motionless and spread out over the sidewalk. But assuming they were sleeping, I walked on, and decided that upon my return I would drop off whatever euros I had to spare before my European departure. I arrived at the church, venerated the relics, and when I returned to the spot where the homeless family was, they were gone. At least I knew they were alive.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I read about 85 year old Swiss photographer René Robert, who died in Paris from hypothermia after falling and being ignored for nine hours. Apparently he fell after suffering a dizzy spell while on one of his nightly walks around the busy Paris neighborhood where he lived. According to his friend the journalist Michel Mompontet, in a series of Twitter posts:

"He suffered a dizzy spell and fell. Unable to get up, he lay rooted to the spot in the cold for nine hours until a homeless person called the emergency services. Too late. He had hypothermia and couldn’t cling on to life. Over the course of those nine hours no passerby stopped to check why this man was lying on the pavement. Not one.”

For nine hours busy parisians were walking around his body, probably used to such sights just as I had witnessed in 2016, until a homeless person took notice and called emergency services. Mompontet also said on France TV Info, that Robert had been “killed by indifference”, adding: “If this awful death could serve some purpose, it would be this: when a human is lying on the pavement, we should check on them – no matter how busy we may be. Let’s just stop for a second.”

Mompontet pointed out that many people – himself included – often looked the other way when it came to people on the street. “Before giving any lessons or accusing anyone, I need to deal with a little question that makes me feel uneasy,” the journalist told France TV Info. “Am I 100% sure that I would have stopped had I been confronted with that scene – a man on the ground? Have I never turned away from a homeless person lying in a doorway?”

According to homeless associations, 600 people die on the streets of France every year.

We should see this incident as a challenge to our collective conscience.