Responsibility and terrible decisions

      18 Comments on Responsibility and terrible decisions

I’m sure by now everyone has heard of the horrible mass shooting that happened in Orlando this week-end. So many people died for pretty much no reason.

While it would be a very interesting topic, I am not writing about gun laws, radical Islam, homophobia, etc. What caught my attention is one particular witness that was at the Pulse bar during the events. I am talking about that guy:

Door blocker

This man was interviewed by several media outlets since the shooting, and he has described his perspective of the events. The thing that struck me was the part where he describes that after getting out, he blocked the door. His reasons appear to be that he wanted to block the murderer inside.

According to his own words, when he held the door, he heard the gun shots getting closer and closer, but he also heard banging on the door. Common sense seems to tell us that this put a lot of people in danger by preventing them from leaving, and probably got some killed. Even his words tell us that, obviously, the people banging were scared customers, and not the shooter, because if he was still approaching, he wouldn’t be able to reach the door to bang on it.

Some people reported that this guy is an actor (Luis Burbano).

Luis Burbano

They certainly look similar, but it’s not officially confirmed yet. Obviously, some people think it’s a conspiracy by someone to cover up the fact that other witnesses said the doors were blocked, while others think he was an accomplice playing the victim. Let’s assume that those conspiracy theories are false because they are very hard to prove as of now.

If that guy was really a scared customer of the bar, who had most likely taken a couple shots during the evening, reacting to the horror of a shooter in a crowded and dark building, and in the heat of the moment, he actually thought blocking the door was the right thing to do. Nobody can say that they would act perfectly, or even rationally in this predicament, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s also assume that his choices (blocking the door) got one person killed for the sake of argument.

How responsible is he?

Obviously, the murderer is the guy with the gun. But if you help him, you’re usually an accomplice. If you help him by accident through poor decision-making during the events, even if that was not your intention, you still helped him.

The problem with this kind of situation is that the extreme level of stress can make anyone irrational. You don’t hold a little kid responsible for taking a candy bar at the shop without paying, you don’t hold a mentally handicapped person responsible for most usual crimes (but you usually detain them in some facility to prevent further criminal activity). In this situation, the inability to analyze the situation was only temporary, but the consequences were still very important.

Would you hold the guy responsible for it?

If you answered yes, then I hope you are ready to take responsibility for any mistake you make if you are ever in a life or death situation while intoxicated and probably near-blind and near-deaf because of darkness, loud music and gun shots.

If you answered no, what if 5 people died because of him blocking the door? Would you still not hold him responsible? How about 10 or 15? In the realm of hypothetical situations, how many people have to die from a mistake like that before holding the person responsible, and throwing them in jail? 100? 500?

My point is that this is a really grey area. If the guy is indeed telling the truth, there’s no way he doesn’t understand that he might very well have locked some people to their deaths in there. He probably feels very very guilty at this point. He probably already holds himself responsible. Do you agree with him?

Just for the sake of argument, try to replace Mr. Burbano with someone you know, like a parent, a lover, a child. Does this change your answer? Would you look your already traumatized and ashamed children in the eyes and tell them they killed some people?

Honestly, I have no idea how this kind of situation should be treated. I feel bad for the guy (again, only if it’s not a conspiracy and he was genuinely trying to help), but I certainly feel worse for the people banging on the door who mighthave been left to die by one of the other victims.

Either way, the whole thing is very sad, disturbing and horrible.

  • Kingfisher12

    The question, I suppose, is what responsibility do people have for actions they do while in a state of panic.

    When a person is panicking, they may as well be considered unconscious for the purposes of responsibility.

    But a person can be held responsible for things that happen while they were unconscious, if them losing consciousness was what caused the things to happen, and we would expect a reasonable person to not lose consciousness in such a situation. A person who falls asleep at the wheel may be held responsible for what happens when they crash.

    But in situations where a loss of consciousness is expected or unavoidable, we can’t really hold people responsible for not remaining conscious. If a person suddenly faints and knocks another person over, we don’t generally charge them with assault. In a high-stress situation where even the most level-headed person might panic, holding them responsible for what they do while panicking isn’t generally helpful.

    • Kaito Kid

      I chuckled thinking about some guy fainting in the street and then getting sued because he hit someone while falling

  • 404_Username_Not_Found

    Yes he is responsible to some degree. In the hypothetical you propose he directly prevented at least one person from being able to benefit from the same escape route he took.

    Whether the extenuating circumstances excuse him from owing some form of penance is a different question.

  • Travis

    I would say, assuming things happened as you stated, he is partially responsible for the deaths, but its easy to make rational well thought out judgments about split second actions from your armchair, during the chaos is another matte entirely. However, I agree with Duncan that it is not the sort of ‘reasonably foreseeable’ action that a ‘reasonable person’ should be held liable for in civil court. As for criminal court that’s even more difficult to pin fault. You need mens rea and actus rea. With no mens rea at best he would be criminally negligent but that would require some sort of reckless endangerment which doesn’t seem to be the case.
    This of course comes from my very limited knowledge of law. Most of my knowledge is about contract law dealing with construction and engineering, not criminal law.

    • Kaito Kid

      I definitely agree with pretty much everything you said, except for the part about laws (reas and stuff), not because I disagree, but I simply don’t really understand. Could you explain what mens rea and actus rea are, and what would be their effect on the current situation (or the “probable” situation that I tried to analyse in the post)?

      • Roughly (from the 21st century equivalent of knowledge, aka google and wikipedia, not actual pre-existing knowledge):

        mens == mind
        rea == guilt(y)
        actus == action(s)

        so “mens rea” == “guilty mind” (did you take the action deliberately in your right mind, intending the consequences)
        and “actus rea” == “guilty action”.(did you take the alleged action)

        • Kaito Kid

          Ahh thanks, I see the point now

        • Travis

          Thats right.
          and from my recollection from basic law in the criminal justice system in Canada the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt both mens rea and actus rea. Which is why the insanity plea can be effectively used. If your sanity is in question you may not have the mens rea, even though you definitely murdered those children…. 🙂
          Also why the prosecution is so interested in the motive.

          The exception, as I mentioned, is negligence, or strict liability. You can accidentally run someone over with your car and have no intention of killing that person. But if you were drunk or on your phone at the time (for example) you were not taking the proper care you are required to take while driving and hence negligence has taken place which you could be found guilty of even though there is no mens rea.

          • Kingfisher12

            Negligence isn’t really different. In cases regarding negligence, a person is legally obligated to perform a certain action. (ie: remain alert while driving). Failing to perform the required actions, through a conscious choice, indicates both mens rea (the negligence) and actus rea (the accident).

            You may not have intended for anyone to get hurt (so it isn’t murder), but you did willfully intend to commit negligence, and thus put people in harms way.

  • My personal view is: assuming that things happened as stated, he is not responsible in any legal way. As you said: we none of us know how we’d react in a terrible situation like that, and he did the best he could. Furthermore, on the moral side, he’s almost certainly blaming himself, again as you said, there’s no call to criticise him and make him feel worse. In fact, many survivors of such horrible incidents suffer survivor guilt just for having survived when so many died. Cut the guy some slack! (or if you prefer Biblical references: let he who is without sin cast the first stone).

    • Kaito Kid

      I agree 100%. I was not trying to criticize the man or anything, I thought I made clear that I have no idea how I would react in that situation. It’s possible to think that a decision was a mistake without holding the person responsible. That’s the grey area I wanted to discuss.

      • Agreed, it’s a definite maybe. Little point discussing it (IMHO) unless we can also simulate the context, the panic, the noise, the blood and the need to make an urgent decision. 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing!

        • btw, I have no answer to the “how many have to die” point. Isn’t that a variation of the “railroad switch” moral philosophy argument the explores utilitarianism?

          • Kaito Kid

            Now that you mention it, yes that’s pretty much a variation of the trolley problem. In that case, it’s not exactly killing, it’s more like putting certain people in high risk of death to reduce the risk of death of another group. The person making the decision is in the second group, and in that case it’s very important.

            • Yeh, agreed. For some reason that is slightly obscure even to me, I don’t much care for the railroad trolley and similar examples. I can see what they’re getting at, but they just don’t do it for me.

  • Sondermuell

    I believe that it would be good to not only decide if the guy is to be held responsible, but how he is to be held responsible. Putting him in jail helps nobody. Where I come from responsibility makes a difference for the insurances. If you are responsible for a dammage done unintentionally the insurance pays. If you are not responsible, the insurance won’t pay. I would therefore consider it good to hold him responsible but not to punish him.

    • Kaito Kid

      This seems pretty fair, but I’m not sure if, in that case, hat would work. What damage is there to pay for? Most insurance doesn’t pay for terrorist attacks (I think this one qualifies), so no life insurance to pay out, material damage and injuries would be near impossible to pin on him in particular, considering that any injured that could have banged on the door probably moved a lot after, and the shooter is still 99.9999% the culprit. What would you do to hold him responsible without punishing him?

      • Sondermuell

        You’re right about the insurances probably not paying for damages caused by terrorist attacks. I hadn’t considered that when I posted this morning. Holding somewone responsible without any direct consequences like a punishment or paying for some of the damage done seems a bit tricky. I can’t quite nail the value I see in this, but it seems helpful to me if people stand for their actions independent of any possible excuses (I was drunk, I had a bad childhood, and so on). It appears to me that the fear of punishment might reduce the ability take responsibility for ones own actions while the punishment itself has no use. So in this particular case I would actually leave it to the guy himself to see if or how he can compensate for what he has done. If he feels guilty this would be a chance for him to deal with his guilt. If he doesn’t feel guilty it will probably be near impossible to nail any specific damage on him directly (like you wrote). In either case I believe he will need a lot of professional psychological support himself.