I came home to find an ambulance parked outside my house the other day. It scared the living daylights out of me.

Ambulances on my road always do. Not anywhere else, mind. Anywhere else, I’m just mildly aware of them and feel a bit sorry for whatever stranger they’re either rushing to help or transporting away. But on my street, they scare me.

This goes back a long, long way. Back to when I was single-digit little, and trying to work out why recent history was the way it was. Why bad things happen and people don’t stop them.

It’s the example I remember contemplating, so I’m going to go with Hitler here, but it’s as valid for any other situation. Hitler’s rise to power could have been, as it were, an accident. A stupid one by any accounts, but an accident. Belief and disbelief alike are powerful things; I’ve always known we see what we want to see more often than not. Everything that happened after? That’s on the people who were there. They let that happen.

But I wouldn’t let that happen. I just knew it. And my parents wouldn’t, and my siblings, and my friends, and… and… and something had to be wrong with my reasoning. Because nobody I could think of would just let their friends and neighbours be taken away and murdered. Nobody I could think of would just follow an order to murder all of those people.

And yet people did. Everyday, mundane, normal, next-door-neighbour, best-friend people. A whole damn country full of them. (Epic, awesome, incredible people who actually did resist and fight back excluded. But there weren’t enough of them — any population of any country outnumbers the army hundreds to one, and anyway soldiers are just people too, and just as capable of refusing an order. If the country said NO, then that would have HAD to have been that. But as a whole, the country, the average people, didn’t.)

Which meant I was wrong. Wrong about everyone and wrong about me. It meant that if I wasn’t very careful, then in a situation like that I too would turn a blind eye and probably still loudly protest that of course I would help people, of course I would, and never mention the ones who had vanished in the middle of the night, and ignore the guilty glances of my neighbours as they agreed with my hollow protestations every bit as hollowly.

So those words became worthless. Only my actions counted. And they counted for everything. They had to be the right actions, because you don’t get a second chance at this. Either you stand up when evil is happening or it’s already too late, and people have been hurt, and people have died, and that is on you.

And that is why ambulances on my road scare me. Because my road is within my sphere of observation — I see my neighbours every day. I hear the people next door dimly through the wall. If there’s an ambulance on my road, one of the possible reasons for it being there is that there is evil on my road. Everyday, horrific evil.

And if there is evil on my road, then I’ve done the worst possible thing short of committing the atrocity myself. I’ve allowed it to happen. It’s been going on alongside me for who knows how long and I failed to see it and failed to stop it. It doesn’t matter why. My excuses are meaningless, of no more worth than the protestations that of course I wouldn’t let even a stranger be murdered while my next-door neighbour is hauled off to the gas chambers and we all pretend I never had a next-door neighbour.

When an atrocity is committed, there are, at best, five kinds of people:

  1. The “people”, if they can still be worthy of the respect that word implies, who committed it. (Yes, they’re still just as sapient as the rest of us, but they’re also disgusting, morally-repugnant, morally-subhuman scum. And they are that because they are capable of choosing and chose evil. An angry bear might rend someone limb from limb, but it’s just a bear. It doesn’t have the capacity for moral judgement, it just does what bears do.)
  2. The people it was done to. (Animals are also the victims of some pretty horrific atrocities, so this category could be null, but that’s not really the situation I’m considering here.)
  3. The people who were in a position to know, and to act, and who did nothing. Who closed their eyes and ears, who knew it was wrong but went with the old “well it’s none of my business” or “but they might hurt me” or “but maybe the victim does deserve it” – which is never, ever true. These people are also guilty of evil. Grey evil, mundane, everyday evil. I think there’s a phrase, probably not exactly this, but something like “diffusion of responsibility” – where every individual in a crowd thinks it’s the rest of the crowd’s job to act, and surely somebody will, so it’s not on them. And they’re wrong, because crowds and groups are made up of individuals and it’s always, always up to you to do the right thing.
  4. The people who were so far away that they couldn’t know until after the fact. Their moral duty (as I see it) is still to act, but they can only try to help clear up the mess: to aid the survivors and bring the perpetrators to justice. Australians can’t be expected to know the details of today’s crimes in England, after all. I can’t know what’s happening in the tower blocks of London. But I can damn well support the people who do.
  5. The people who are in a position to know and to act and who do act. The heroes, the everyday heroes of the world who, despite all of their fears and doubts, stand up and say “Enough, this is wrong and this must end.” And they are fewer and further between than any of us would like to believe.

So for almost my entire life, I’ve tried my hardest to be alert and watchful, to look out for the signs that something bad is happening. As a small child I prepared (probably unrealistic, but I tried) getaway plans in case I ever needed to help a hypothetical child escape. (They usually ended up with us hiding in my parents’ loft, because my parents would believe me if I told them something was wrong, but first we would have to hide somewhere else, in a park or under a bridge or something, for a week because my parents’ place would be the first place people would look if they thought I’d run off with someone and didn’t know why, because the many, many storybooks I read all implied that everyday adults don’t always believe children, and so the police might be on the wrong side at first and think they were just looking for a missing child.) I’ve listened to shouted arguments in the road, hoping there will be no sign that it might be anything other than raised voices and naturally flared tempers. (My favourite, when I lived elsewhere, went through a lot of hyperbole about setting the kitchen on fire before ending in what the — adult, I swear — participants clearly both considered the ultimate strike: “Well I’ll tell your mum!”, which amazingly ended the whole thing.) I’ve gone through over and over and over again in my mind how and when to do something, so that I don’t freeze up or back out. I’ve programmed myself mentally to react in a certain way if I ever find myself in a situation of evil so that I won’t get trapped there, because that’s all too horribly easy to do.

I’ve already failed at least twice and acted damn late a third time. The first failure, I can live with, though I’m always going to regret that I wasn’t better. The secret was well kept and I was not good enough with people to read the signs: I had no suspicion. I still failed, I still allowed it to happen, but at least I was doing the best I was able and it was only because I honestly didn’t know. The second time was closer to home and harder, and yes, I was wilfully blind. I wanted someone close to me to be happy, and I was far away, and though I heard the news from home I didn’t find the subtle signs convincing enough: I thought I was paranoid (which is also slightly true) and that the one I cared about wouldn’t get sucked down into a bad situation (stupid, stupid, STUPID). Which led straight to the third time, and so in a way that whole business was my fault, and yes I finally acted but I acted too late. People have suffered who shouldn’t have suffered, and someone was torn down and broken who should never have been torn down, and there is a rift between several people close to me, and some of that is on me. My excuses are worthless. I let this happen. I’m not in control of the actions of other people, but I am in control of my own. And while my intervention may not have been too little, it was far, far too late.

But at least, when I did fully realise and when it was before me, I acted. Not alone, but I did. And perhaps, at least, I can learn from all I have done and failed to do and do better. Nobody’s perfect — but that means we can always do better.

(Incidentally, the ambulance crew were chatting and laughing as the patient got in. So there probably isn’t any evil on my road for me to worry about, at least not this time. That doesn’t mean it didn’t scare me silly.

And, most importantly, I hope the patient recovers from whatever was really wrong.)