Does America Still Have a Moral Compass?

Jeremy Horton

August 1, 2009

Earlier this month I was watching the news, and one of the lead stories was the most appalling I had seen in a long time. It started by showing security camera footage of a busy street in Hartford, Connecticut. A man was walking near the curb when a car swerved left of center and hit him so hard that his body was launched into the air, went over the car, and landed in the middle of the street. He did not die, which was surprising after seeing the impact. He was 78 years old and the hit paralyzed him. As terrible as the accident was, though, it was not what made the video newsworthy. The shocking part was what occurred right after the accident—absolutely nothing.

Everyone kept going about their day. People kept walking. Cars kept driving. They were nice enough to swerve around the senior citizen lying in the street because they were in a hurry but nobody seemed to have the free time to try and help this man. I have not even mentioned that the car that hit the man sped away and turned down the next street. After that car drove off, I counted ten more on the video that passed without stopping. After a little while, people stopped walking and they began to congregate on the sidewalk. They still were not helping. They just stood there looking at him. The video is as depressing as much as it is shocking. The Hartford Chief of Police was quoted after the event saying, “We no longer have a moral compass.” After watching the video, it was hard to disagree with his assessment, and yet, I did.

One week before the Hartford incident, I was in my hometown bank. I was about to leave when the banker I was talking to began to gaze out the window. He said, “I think someone was just hit by a car.” He did not call for help. I walked outside and saw why he didn’t. There were at least fifteen people gathered around whoever had been hit, traffic on the state route had stopped, and ambulances were just arriving. All of the people around the victim were just people who had seen it happen. All traffic, including the car that hit the person, was stopped because the drivers in both lanes were so concerned about what happened. An old man began to direct the stopped traffic so that it could continue without getting in the way of help. The old man was not wearing a badge or anything. He just decided he needed to help. After watching this scene for a few minutes I left to go on my way. The situation was being handled.

I admit, immediately after seeing the news story about the Hartford incident, I was a little skeptical of humanity. Everyone who saw the story had to be. How could people be so heartless? Maybe we have lost our “moral compass.” Then I realized that the reason the video was being talked about was that it was so shocking. This seems dumb because I have already stated how shocking it was, but if society had lost its moral compass then it would not have been that shocking. People are expected not to act that way. Then I thought about my experience the week before. There was no national news story about hundreds of people doing the right thing. All the local news said was that a car had hit someone. People were not praising the citizens of my town with the same passion that they damned the people of Hartford. Nobody really said anything about it.

It was natural for people to alter their day in order to do the right thing. The right thing may have been something as small as waiting an extra five minutes to get to wherever they were going. The point is that they did not ignore the plight of another human being because it was convenient for them. People understood that they may be somewhat inconvenienced because this person needed help. Traffic was held up miles down the road, which means that people were merely doing the right thing as a result of other people doing the right thing. There was no way that most of the cars that were stopped knew that a person had gotten hurt. They just had to sit and wait because the people ahead of them had seen the accident and stopped, which forced them to stop. I am sure that they eventually found out what had occurred and had no problem with being inconvenienced.

Yes, there are lots of bad things that happen in this country but those things do not mean that we are as evil as many people think. Most people do the right thing most of the time. It is the times when people do something that is clearly wrong that everyone around starts proclaiming the devolution of humanity, such as the Hartford hit and run. This opinion spreads quickly because of the utter disbelief that people could actually act in such a heinous way. After hearing the story, many begin to buy into the idea that we live in an evil nation. This is a good sign, though. If we truly lived in a nation without morality then it would be amazing to us when people did the right thing. People rarely acknowledge the right thing, and most probably hardly notice it when it is done right in front of their face.

I probably would not have noticed the decent actions of people in my town if it were not for the evil inaction of the people who declined to help that old man in Hartford. It was one of those rare examples when you can see that the exception proves the rule. People should have done the right thing in Hartford, but they didn’t. The video spread because of how appalling it was that people did not do what was obviously the right thing. As long as we are shocked by people not doing the right thing our society will be alright. It will be a very bad sign for our moral compass when doing the right thing starts getting the headlines.

Jeremy Horton is a senior from Valley City, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.