Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. — Voltaire
Shortly following their high school graduation in Southern California, two 18-year-old young men, best friends since childhood, drove to a casino just crossing the Nevada line where they intended to play video games before returning home the next day.
After engaging in the games for a while, one of the friends, Jeremy Strohmeyer, walked toward the restrooms. Seeing that he entered the Women’s room, the other young man, David Cash, walked in to see what Jeremy was doing. He noticed that Jeremy was playfully throwing wadded paper towels at a young black girl, who seemed at first to have enjoyed the attention.
But then the scene turned violent. Strohmeyer grabbed 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson, placed his hand over her mouth, and spirited her into a toilet stall as Cash watched by the sinks. He entered an adjacent stall and mounted the toilet edge allowing him to peer down as he saw Jeremy continuing to muffle the girl’s screams and hearing as he warned Sherrice to keep quiet or he would kill her.
Not wanting to get involved, Cash returned to playing video games. He did not attempt to stop his friend from attacking the young girl. He did not seek help or call law enforcement officials. He calmly played games and waited for the 20 minutes it took for Jeremy to return. David asked Jeremy what had happened.
“I killed her,” Jeremy asserted with a certain serenity in his tone on that summer evening in 1997. Soon thereafter, the two friends coolly entered nearby casinos where they enjoyed mechanical rides and continued to play video games until it was time for them to return home.
With the assistance of the video security system implanted at the casino, Strohmeyer was eventually caught, tried, and convicted to life imprisonment for rape and murder. Cash on the other hand, was never indicted because inaction was not a crime in Nevada at the time.
In reaction to the case and the lack of charges against Cash, Richard Perkins, Speaker of the Nevada Assembly, sponsored the Sherrice Iverson bill requiring Nevadans to notify law enforcement if they witness violent acts committed against a child. The law took effect in 1999, and a similar measure passed in California one year later.
Questioned on a CBS “60 Minutes” segment, “The Bad Samaritan,” in 1999 that if given a chance, would he do things differently, Cash said, “I don’t feel there is much I could have done differently.” Asked a similar question during an interview on a Los Angeles radio station, Cash gave a similar reply and added:
How much am I supposed to sit down and cry about this….The simple fact remains that I did not know this little girl. I do not know starving children in Panama. I do not know people dying of disease in Egypt.
The Long Beach Press-Telegram quoted Cash as saying that he wanted to sell his story to the media. One movie company already had offered him $21,000, he added. “I’m no idiot,” he declared. “I’ll (expletive) get my money out of this.”
In not taking action to intervene on behalf of Sherrice Iverson, David Cash colluded in her death. “Enabler” is the term given to those who fail to act to help abusers. “Passive bystander” or “bad Samaritan” is the name for people who are conscious of bad actions developing around them but fail to intervene.
Though I have studied the Holocaust and other genocides, until I discovered this case, I always had the gnawing and seemingly unanswerable question pulling at me, “How could these incidents have taken place throughout the ages”?
David Cash taught me that mass murders happen on the macro level when people on the individual and collective level let them happen when witnesses — so-called “bystanders” — do little or nothing to intervene. When people either allow their fear or reluctance to “get involved” to supersede their empathy.
Empathy, that special and majestic human quality, has always been a vital life force of our humanness. As we understand in psychology, unless there is developmental delay, infants demonstrate the rudimentary beginnings of empathy whenever they recognize that another is upset, and they show signs of being upset themselves. Very early in their lives, infants develop the capacity to crawl in the diapers of others even though their own diapers don’t need changing.
Though empathy is a part of the human condition, through the process of socialization, others often teach us to inhibit our empathetic natures with messages like “Don’t cry,” “You’re too sensitive,” “Mind your own business,” “It’s not your concern.” We learn the stereotypes of the individuals and groups our society has “minoritized” and “othered.” We learn who to scapegoat for the problems within our neighborhoods, states, nations, world.
Through it all, that precious life-affirming flame of empathy can wither and flicker. For some, it dies entirely. And as the blaze recedes, the bullies, the demagogues, the tyrants take overfilling the void where our humanness once prevailed. And then we have lost something very precious.
David Cash represents the termination of empathy on the individual micro-level, resulting not only in the possibly preventable rape and murder of a young girl, but the death of his own soul. And when the demise of empathy comes to powerful leaders, the consequences, on the macro level, become exponentially deeper, toxic, and tragic.
Cash comes from the same mold as the current President of the United States, Donald Trump. In addition to their obvious narcissistic sociopathic personalities, their lack of empathy overrides their beliefs and actions.
Our President carelessly blamed the mayor of London for being incompetent after a terrorist attack on his city. He accused the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico for playing politics and being ungrateful, and the Puerto Rican people for being lazy and expecting everything to be done for them on their “bankrupt” island after a “500-year” storm virtually shut them down as people cling desperately to life.
He mocked a disabled reporter, took the rights of trans students to use bathrooms most closely aligning with their gender identities, demonized Latinx people, Muslims, and women, ridiculed Gold Star parents who sacrificed so much while Donald Trump sits on his gold-plated toilet as he attempts to take away affordable health care insurance from an estimated 20 million low-income people. And he behaved as if the series of package bombs sent through the mail to leading Democratic politicians and activists was nothing more than an inconvenience during the closing days of the midterms election season.
Quite frankly, I find few differences between the attitudes and actions of David Cash and Donald J. Trump. Though the Trumps and Cashes are more numerous than we can even imagine, empathy has always been an antidote to the poison of inaction, of prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, and scapegoating, and to bullies and demagogues who take power and control.
Empathy is the life force of our humanness, and ultimately to our recovery during the current crisis of leadership in our country.
I often wonder how Trump’s Republican enablers can sleep at night and get back up in the morning still willing to degrade and prostrate themselves by attacking our democratic institutions and seriously dismantling our country’s standing in the world.
Each time anyone enables an abusive action, they keep perpetrators and themselves further from the truth and from help, and they diminish themselves and their integrity more than just a bit.
I have been struck time and time again throughout the post-factual campaign, transition, and now presidency of Donald J. Trump of the lies, the verifiable lies, big and small that he spreads and his direct attacks on our democratic institutions such as the entire judicial system, the House of Representatives, and the State Department.
Even more troubling, however, are Trump’s enablers in his attempts to circumvent the Constitution and destroy our democratic institutions from the halls of the White House.
These enablers spin the facts by turning themselves into virtual pretzels in defense of Trump’s attempts, to paraphrase Voltaire, make us believe his absurdities intended to give him permission to commit possible atrocities.
His sustained and vicious attacks on what he refers to as the “dishonest and corrupt” media imperils our very freedom of the press as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Fortunately, the Fourth Estate, while making some mistakes, fact-checks itself and our politicians, including Trump, and by so doing, exposes his lies for what they are.
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