A deadly case of apathy in Belgium should remind us that we could all give more attention to personal social responsibility.
Guns and knives kill, but apathy is a more dangerous foe
It was a case of senseless violence followed by needless death. Peter Vercauteren, a 43-year-old Belgian artist and local community leader, was heading home late one night in the heart of Sint-Niklaas, not far from the picturesque market square, the largest in the country, for which the smallish town is best known.
Vercauteren, "Pee" to his friends, was followed by another punter with whom he'd allegedly had a bit of a shouting match in the pub, even though by all accounts Vercauteren was a jovial man with a big heart and a booming laugh that could be heard long before its owner could be seen.
His assailant, Wesley L, headbutted Vercauteren so hard that he collapsed on a dark street and later died.
Had this been the whole story then this tragedy would have remained a largely private one. But what happened next has had locals, who went on a silent march to express their outrage at his preventable death, searching for explanations.
While Vercauteren lay dying outside a kebab shop, under the apparently unwatchful eye of a police surveillance camera, a number of people walked past him without stopping, including his attacker who returned for a second look. An hour and a half later, someone finally put in a call to the emergency services, by which time it was too late.
This carries echoes of a similar tragedy, in 2006, when Joe Van Holsbeeck, 17, was stabbed for his mp3 player on a busy rush-hour train platform in Brussels. No one came to his aid, either.
One explanation for why no one lifted a finger to assist Vercauteren, as one friend, Steven, put it to me, is that passers-by may have assumed he was just a drunk who had fallen into a booze-induced stupor.
While this could well be what discouraged some from rushing to the fallen man's aid, I find this diagnoses the symptom more than the underlying condition. Even if he was passed out by his own act, surely this, in a cordial, educated society, would prod people to act, despite knee-jerk snobbery towards "tramps". After all, in addition to the danger of choking, an unconscious drunk also runs the risk in winter of developing hypothermia or freezing to death.
Another, more convincing reason is simple, instinctive, gut-wrenching fear. "The uncertainty in society has increased the level of fear, and this undoubtedly played a role," says Roel Thierens, 23, who volunteered in a youth centre, Kompas, where Vercauteren also worked.
Although much of Europe is perhaps the safest it has ever been, a neurotic media and fear-mongering politicians induce in many people a sense of disproportionate fear and distrust of, not to mention alienation from, others, especially immigrants and minorities. These trends extend far beyond Europe, however, and have taken root in many parts of the Middle East as well.
But fear, especially in a situation as nonthreatening as this, can be overcome.
At its heart, what this could all boil down to is that the true accomplice in this crime was apathy and indifference. "Passers-by might well have thought that somebody else is bound to help him," notes Wouter Thierens, Roel's older brother who also volunteers at Kompas.
Many social conservatives see such apparent apathy as a sign of the breakdown in traditions and family values. But what this overlooks is that while families have become less central than they once were, they still play a pivotal and central role in the lives of most Belgians.
Additionally, in countries where family is still paramount and traditional community remains important, such wilful blindness occurs on a near daily basis.
In any modern, well-oiled, mechanical society, it is not that people have abandoned their sense of community and solidarity, though some erosion has occurred thanks to the greater individual alienation witnessed in contemporary society. It is that life has changed to become more impersonal and distant. Citizens have grown to expect the "system" to take care of everything and everyone: the destitute and the desperate, the weak and the sick, and the criminal and his or her victims.
However, important as such systemic solutions are, we still need a certain sense of personal social responsibility. And this is a challenge for all of us, no matter where we live.
Khaled Diab is a Belgian-Egyptian freelance journalist, blogger and writer
On Twitter @DiabolicalIdea