When I was a university student, a friend and I came home on the train one weekend. The train station in Portadown is situated at the infamous “tunnel”, a pair of low road and railway bridges forming one of the town’s main interface areas. This particular evening was quiet, so there was nobody else around when we came out the pedestrian entrance and turned to walk under the road.
Under the bridge, we saw one man probably in his late twenties beating up another, who was sitting on the ground and making little effort to defend himself. The victim saw us and made eye contact, and pleaded for help.
We walked past and ignored the scene.
Immediately we left the tunnel, we turned to one another and started questioning our actions. We should have helped him. Yes, we should. But we kept walking. When we reached the main street, we flagged down a police car and sent them to the scene. I have no idea what happened next – whether we were quick enough, whether the perpetrator got away. I don’t remember the incident appearing in the local news.
We have never since discussed the incident. I can’t speak for my friend, but I know why I haven’t.
I am ashamed.
Neither of us were ever particularly physical or sporty. We were nice middle-class boys who rarely got involved in fights. Either one of us would have stood little chance against an angry skinhead. Neither of us wanted to get the other one in trouble.
But if we’d had the guts and the attitude, together we probably could have bluffed him. If we’d walked straight up and asked him what the fuck he was doing, the likelihood is that it would have ended in a stalemate and all four people would have walked away.
That’s what I tell myself anyway. I tell myself that all the time.
This week, we are all bad samaritans. The local skinhead is beating up his neighbour for some reason or another. The history is too complicated for most to understand, and it’s easy to find excuses for inaction. But the principle is exactly the same.
I am of course talking about Vladimir Putin. He has form (Georgia 2008) and an often-stated nostalgia for the glory days of the Soviet Union. He knows he will never get it back, but that just makes it worse – all bullies are born from insecurity and a phobia of weakness.
While the West prevaricates, Putin merrily does whatever he pleases. We are weary of war, and cynical of the motives of our own leaders. Putin survives on his reputation as a strong man who will return his people to greatness. He sees us all as cowards. But all that is required is for the neighbourhood to gang up on the local bully and put him in his place. Putin would not risk open war; it would be the end of his career. Russia hasn’t been a great power for many years and Russia would lose. Yes, he has nukes but Putin is a rational man. He is not Kim Jong Un.
The longer we leave it, the worse he will get. This is our Sudetenland.