Last Friday on the train in Erfurt there was a very ugly case of xenophobia and racism directed against a young Syrian. A German man with a bike hurled verbal abuse at the boy, and then physically attacked him, kicking him and smashing his phone on the ground. The man was later arrested, but I certainly imagine that the boy is scarred.
I wasn’t there – this was shared on Twitter. But as I have witnessed a number of frightening attacks on fellow passengers where my reactions were sometimes more and sometimes less effective, and I want to do better, here is a note to myself: If someone is attacked in my presence, my most promising intervention would go like this:
I would not confront the offender – that would only attract the aggressions of the perpetrator. After all, in his view, I would have no official role or privilege, I’d just be a fellow citizen, so he would be able to challenge me directly.
Instead, it would make sense to notify the driver, who could close the doors to prevent the attacker from escaping; also, to call the police to report the incident. Ideally, I could engage with the other passengers around me to get this done.
Overall, my and our attention would then need to be on the victim, who is experiencing something traumatic. So I would go to him, sitting down with him, and address him nicely, starting a familiar conversation, as if we knew each other. “Good to see you here. How is school going? I’m on my way home from work. What about you?…”
Something to bear in mind is that courage is contagious – courage begets more courage – and civic courage is liberating.