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Saturday, February 10, 2007
(5:55 PM) | Stephen:
Apathy is the Greatest Evil

Yesterday - Thursday - the LAPD received phone calls about a man crawling along the street in the infamous Skid Row, wearing nothing but a dirty hospital gown and a broken colostomy bag. This man is a paraplegic. The photo at the top of the linked webpage was taken last October in Skid Row. It shows a man being transported from a hospital to a homeless shelter; the LAPD says that he "was one of five patients from the L.A. Metropolitan Medical Center who were photographed and videotaped by police being dropped off on skid row against their will."

That's some pretty bad stuff, there. But like most news items, it only tells part of the story.

I don't know about you, but I've worked in a couple of parachurch organizations devoted to helping the homeless - meals, shelter, clothes, medical care, job counseling/training, etc. It's not easy work. To be completely frank, homeless people are not the most appealing group. I've been threatened, had personal property stolen and been told more lies than I could ever begin to catalog.

Perhaps, then, we should ask why a man who obviously would qualify for state and federal assistance because of his disability doesn't have a home or apartment to go to. Homeless people can be erratic; maybe he demanded to leave AMA and to be taken to Skid Row. Perhaps he was belligerent and threatening.

We should also consider the plight of the hospital in question. Like any hospital that treats the indigent, we can be sure that this hospital is running under the tightest of budgets. Doctors, nurses and orderlies are overworked. Pressure is put on every level to do more with less, and people who make a habit of coming in and sucking up resources are making it more difficult for others to receive care they need.

Finally, there's the ambulance drivers themselves. We can fairly safely assume that they were the ones tasked with finding a place for this man to go. They were the final destination of this problem, and in a city like LA, we can be certain there were emergencies to which they could have responded had they not needed to deal with this problem.

If you are about to explode with righteous indignation at the way I've described this situation, good. Perhaps you caught how I stopped referring to the unnamed homeless man as a person, instead describing him with the word "problem." If this or any other part of my narrative bothered you, breathe a sigh of relief, because you have managed to avoid the trap that the hospital staff and ambulance drivers did not: you maintained this man's humanity, and therefore your own.

There's a discussion in one of the myriad of posts on the "blogger scandal" about dehumanization. It's easy to dehumanize one's political opponents, one's battlefield enemies, large groups of people who differ in some way. But that's not the dehumanization that really concerns me.

The actors in this tragedy were face-to-face with a human being. A man. And as they worked with him, they transformed him from a human being to a burden, a problem that didn't need to be solved so much as simply disposed. They succombed to the pressures of their jobs and responsibilities, and made a choice. Perhaps this choice ensured that a sick kid got into the ER in time to avoid death. Unfortunately, the reality is that they were pressured into this process by budgets, staff meetings, paperwork and this nation's continuing insistence upon not funding our healthcare system.

Eric Fair's heartrending article in the Washington Post is another example of this dehumanization process. Thankfully he has been able to recover his own humanity through speaking out and admitting what he did and why. He was just following orders, of course, just acting as he had been trained to act. And perhaps the people he "interrogated" actually had valuable information. Eric Fair, however, understands now that he was face-to-face with a human being. A man.

Every day millions of law-abiding, tax-paying, good and decent Americans look one another in the eye and find ways to deny the humanity of the person standing before them. "Whatever it is, it's not my responsibility," we say. And I believe that nothing, not the Iraq War, not abortionists or abortion protestors, not illegal immigration or the Minutemen, not even George W. himself poses as great a threat to the continuation of our republic than this.

cross-posted at Ezra's place

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