Should You Intervene if Someone Else is Being Attacked?

The time has come to talk about something a little different, readers, and it is a serious subject. Most of our long-time readers pride themselves on maintaining a high overall level of personal readiness so they’re prepared to deal with emergencies great and small, and none more likely than an encounter with the nastier, criminal elements of society.

two men in a street fight

Sure, the big ticket disasters and globe spanning catastrophes get all the attention if for nothing more than sheer spectacle makes dissection of such an event morbidly entrancing, but it is the small-scale stuff, that everyday occurrences, that are far, far more likely to spell doom for you, a family member or someone around you.

Bystanders did nothing as woman was raped on Philadelphia train, police say

And with that we come to the question. If you saw a crime being committed against someone else, a robbery, assault or something else, would you intervene? Should you intervene? Do you understand the consequences for doing so?

This is a topic that warrants serious thought today, and failing to plan for this occurrence could lead to disaster. Today, we are tackling this tough topic head on.

The Inciting Incident

Why am I bringing this up now? Why such urgency? I will tell you, reader: On October 13th, 2021 a woman in Philadelphia on a SEPTA train was attacked and sexually assaulted by a homeless man after a prolonged period of harassment and assault, while all the other passengers on the train did nothing to intervene, nothing that is except film the brutal attack with their smartphones.

To call this a broad daylight attack is to seriously understate the brazenness of the attack.

Police, thankfully, were able to apprehend the attacker and do so with him dead to rights thanks to the preponderance of video and other physical evidence.

But our story does not end here, just another example of savagery among hundreds of others in that decrepit city ironically known as The City of Brotherly Love.

Shortly after the capture of the rapist, the police decided that they may well criminally charge all of the bystanders, the ones who filmed the attack!

The police declined to specify what charges these bystanders would face, and were quick to point out that the final decision to charge the bystanders on the train car would rest with the Delaware County District Attorney’s office, but the notion that such action would be taken is shocking and concerning for a number of reasons.

First, to be charged criminally for omission of action upon observing a crime is dangerous ground indeed considering how many potential crimes any of us could observe on a daily basis. Although not entirely without precedent, this type of legal jeopardy is no laughing matter.

Second, knowing such legal jeopardy for omission of action exists what kind of motivation might a person have to involve themselves in an altercation which could entail serious threat to their own life or limb?

Lastly, it serves as a frightening indication of how corrupt and rudderless our public institutions are becoming.

The government, at all levels but particularly the federal level and regularly exemplified in the largest metropolitan areas, wants nothing more than a total and absolute monopoly on the use of force for any reason.

They would greatly prefer any of us to be good victims, and just give up or die when confronted by a criminal, and now they have the temerity to suggest that they would see fit to punish us for failing to do the job that they proclaim themselves the only ones capable of doing?

Brave new world, indeed. Readers, the time has come to take stock of ourselves and our positions in this rapidly deteriorating society.

Why This Topic Demands Prior Consideration

Just as we prepare for any other contingency, we must prepare for this one. Specifically, we must prepare for the occasion when we will likely encounter a crime in progress, but particularly one that is directed against someone else, likely a stranger, and directly threatens them with death or great bodily injury.

Only by thinking through this scenario can we begin to consider our response, and then train to respond with deliberate, voluntary action instead of reflex.

As with any other emergency or crisis scenario, failing to plan or prepare at all is a recipe for disaster.

Absent any such planning and consideration we may fail to react entirely, react reflexively out of instinct or a sense of misplaced duty, or blunder into a situation that does not require our intervention. Any such reaction or lack of reaction could spell disaster in any number of ways.

The bottom line is this: Intervening in any crime or perceived crime committed against another with force of any kind will have serious consequences.

What kind of consequences? Serious ones, dreadful ones.

And I’m glad you asked, because only by understanding the consequences to ourselves and subsequently to our families and loved ones can we begin to make an informed decision about willful intervention in a violent crime where we are not the target.

Physical Consequences of Intervention

Whatever kind of attack or crime is in progress, be it the robbery of a gas station or the direct assault or rape of another person, first and foremost you must understand that attempting to intervene directly with physical force or via de-escalation, may mean that you wind up critically injured or killed instead.

There is no other way around it. Attempting to face down a criminal who is threatening to use force or is, in actuality, preparing to use force in order to get their way may see you added to just another notch on their pistol, and another victim mentioned in the news report.

You might be willing, you might be armed and you might even be highly trained. Nonetheless, the risk will always be there.

You might bite off more than you could chew when you get the attention of the attacker, screw up your intervention or just get whacked from plain old fashioned bad luck.

If that happens, anyone depending on you will be affected. Your work will be affected, your mobility. You might live with pain for the rest of your life.

Think through the second and third order effects if you should be critically wounded to say nothing of killed. Are you prepared to go through that on behalf of a stranger? Are you prepared to risk the livelihood of your dependents for a stranger?

Legal Consequences of Intervention

I have a little doubt that many people, especially those who carry a firearm for self-defense, probably imagine themselves being in the right place at the right time to prevent some great evil from being done.

Though some cynics in our own sector and basically every media personality in the United States would paint them as some sort of wannabe Rambo or couldn’t-quite-make-it cop, the reality is far different based on my travels.

Most people simply don’t want to see evil done in their presence, and good men and women who are serious about preparation and serious about protecting what is good in their communities might well intervene against a criminal act with the expectation that they would be treated accordingly as a good faith actor.

This, unfortunately, is laughably naive, and may happen one time out of every 100 instances, if that.

No matter what is happening, no matter how egregious the situation, if you intervene in a criminal act using force you can depend on being arrested, and quite probably charged with a crime yourself.

Even if you are not, you have no protection whatsoever from civil charges. This is the dark side as it were of self-defense that people are only now beginning to wake up to in earnest.

Even if you are the good guy and did the right thing, you will still likely need to prove it in a court of law after a considerable delay, a mountain of legal bills and a level of stress that might see you wishing you had died in the encounter.

Even legitimate heroes who arose in the past couple of years (Stephen Willeford and Jack Wilson, two men who stopped heinous church shootings spring to mind) faced significant legal trouble in the aftermath of their interventions.

Call it whatever you want. Call it the nature of the justice system, call it the corrupted conscience of our country or chalk it up to an army of “werewolf lawyers” who would go to bat for a lying monster if it would pad their pockets.

All you need to know is that you are likely to come out of the affair deeply in debt if you come out at all, and there is a non-zero chance that you could be charged and prosecuted accordingly for your good deed.

Social Consequences of Intervention

Social stigma and “unpersoning” are two of the subtler consequences of intervening in what, to you, is an obvious criminal act. Using force, especially lethal force, has consequences socially that must be considered.

Chances are all of your friends, family and associates are not snake-eating door kickers on their fourth tour overseas who will view such an act as just another part of the job or a chore akin to taking out the garbage.

The so-called Mark of Cain syndrome is very real, and you will likely lose friends and perhaps relationships with family members over it, and those that survive will likely be changed forever.

Many civilian good guys and good gals often emerge from the fracas and don’t even reach the far side of the legal entanglement before losing their job, social connections and reputation.

The consequences of this must be factored into the decision of whether or not you will intervene in a criminal act.

This is less of a consideration when it is you or a loved one who are being directly threatened. I don’t know anyone worth a damn who wouldn’t lay all that on the line to protect those that they love and are responsible for.

But would you do the same for a stranger? I’m not here to judge you, but I am here to get you thinking and thinking clearly.

Should Morality Have any Influence over Your Decision?

This is not a comfortable conversation. In fact, it is downright distressing. Not so long ago, citizens of this country were brought up both at home and at school with an unambiguous picture of right and wrong behavior.

The civic expectation of being a good citizen and a good person, proactively, and working to stop wrongdoing and evil deeds was present without question.

But, as the cultural gears of postmodernism have ground on this innate sense of heroism, valor and virtue has been replaced by apathy, cynicism and a calculated aversion to doing anything that might draw the eye of government toward you.

You could certainly make an argument that I myself am contributing to it based on my explanation of the potential consequences for doing so in this day and age, and you may be right.

But it still begs the question: What would a good person do? If evil is being done in your presence, and there is any chance that you can stop it, shouldn’t you try? If not you, then who will?

I have no doubt whatsoever that many readers out in the audience still feel that genuine, principled desire to do good, and ergo confront evil whenever and wherever they have a chance of doing so.

For some of you, it is as innate as your own beating heart. For others it is a religious or spiritual conviction. Still, for others, that may even be a penance or an attempt to atone for something done or left undone.

In my many conversations with peers, students and strangers on the topic it comes up consistently. Many feel the desire to shut down the miscreants who would prey on the weak and the innocent. This is basic humanity we are talking about.

Reader, this is something that you need to have a deep, prolonged conversation with yourself about. There is no shame in prioritizing the needs of your own kin over those of a stranger.

Family must come first. It’s also not to- in any way- diminish the kind of everyday heroism that goes on all over the world, when ordinary people roll the dice and stand in the way of evil, many times succeeding but sometimes not.

But what you cannot do is wait until that fateful day when the event is upon you, happening, at that instant. Then it will be too late for soul searching and shoring up your own moral code. When seconds count, you have to spend them wisely.

Context is Everything

When discussing an intervention by civilians, one element that rarely comes up is that of context. Like I have said time and time again in my works over the years, context is everything. And I mean everything.

Context is foundational to perception. If you cannot establish context or if your assessment of the context is erroneous all of your subsequent determinations are likely to be faulty and that way lies disaster when talking about use of force in defense of someone else.

Consider this, and it might alarm you. When analyzing domestic assaults or physical confrontations between two people in a relationship, it is harrowing to learn that, many times, a bystander who intervenes, typically on behalf of a female, will be confronted by the two participants in the scuffle acting united against them.

Why?! Why would that happen when a bystander tries to intervene on behalf of the victim? Why would the supposed victim then suddenly support their attacker against the Good Samaritan who was trying to help them?

Humans are funny and their relationships are even funnier. Make no mistake, you will at some point in your life see something downright ugly happening to someone who seems defenseless and every, single decent person reading this will feel a strong urge to intervene. That’s good, rather it is good that you feel that way.

Unfortunately, the outcome is never guaranteed to be like those wholesome TV shows and movies of old where the bad guys always lose at the hands of the good guys and the townspeople are happy and grateful for the selfless assistance of the hero.

This phenomenon, as unbelievable as it sounds, happens more than you might think. I can remember one highly publicized example taking place in Florida, of course.

A bystander who was leaving a popular chicken wings franchise witnessed an altercation in the parking lot that was starting to get physical between a man and a woman, the two discovered later to be boyfriend and girlfriend. This bystander intervened on behalf of the woman, and was subsequently attacked by the man.

As the altercation grew more furious, the intervening citizen drew his legally carried handgun in an attempt to shut down the attack.

Unbeknownst to him, the erstwhile female victim had retrieved her own weapon from a nearby vehicle and used it against the man who attempted to intervene, seriously injuring him. Some gratitude, or just desserts for sticking your nose where it does not belong?

It is also worth considering that any police or security forces showing up to a crime in progress much of the time cannot tell you from the actual assailant or assailants.

This is why everyone who seems to be even tangentially involved in an altercation gets sussed, trussed and arrested at the scene and almost every instance.

And this is just for something relatively mundane like good old-fashioned fisticuffs. If we were talking about a use of lethal force, be it with a gun, knife or something else you might be shot on the spot by arriving police.

Sound unfair? It surely is, but you must understand the chaotic situation that you’ll be embroiled in. You don’t wear a uniform. You don’t have a badge.

To anyone else who is arriving at the scene, including other citizens like yourself, you’ll just look like somebody participating in the fracas, potentially with a gun in your hand. It takes little imagination to see how this could result in a tragic, yet predictable, bad outcome for you.

Do You Have Enough Info to Make an Informed Decision?

A sort of rider to the above consideration. In any case, you will rarely have enough information to make a totally informed decision on whether or not you should intervene with force unless you, yourself, or an immediate loved one you are with is the target of an attack. Sounds like a bold assertion, yes?

Not really. This is not to say that your eyes and ears will necessarily deceive you, but you still may not have all of the info you need to intervene justifiably and legally.

Making any error when it comes to who is the actual assailant and who is the victim could cost you terribly, physically, legally and socially as we discussed above.

For instance, upon hearing a clamor or commotion or just stumbling upon a conflict in progress you instinctively jump to the aid of the person who is currently on the receiving end, with a larger opponent getting the better of them.

This is yet another example of typical “box stock” morality that is constructed upon our ideas of fairness and fair play.

However, what you might not know in that situation is that the person that you mistook for the assailant is actually the victim who has turned the tables on the criminal aggressor. Thanks to your blundering into the confrontation, the initial victim now believes he is under attack from an accomplice.

This can get worse yet. Another example of a real life case of missing context and the impossibility of having enough information to correctly decide when to apply force and how much.

What would you do if you came out of a shopping mall late one night, loaded down with purchases, and were confronted with the shocking image of a large, physically fit black man who had a small white woman down on the ground with a boot on her back and a pistol drawn?

If you concealed carry a pistol daily and just answered that you would draw and shoot the guy at the instant, go ahead and poke yourself in the eye with a sharp stick because you just shot a cop in plain clothes who was apprehending a suspect lawfully.

In none of the above cases would you be afforded leniency to say nothing of clemency by the law!

These examples and more besides are what make intervening as a bystander or a party who was not involved at the initiation of the attack so perilous.

The “Line”

Now, let us take a step back from the theoretical and the conceptual for a moment. You come to this website for practical solutions to practical problems, however big or small and however complex. So how does one prepare themselves for this situation?

When the time comes to go hands-on or go to guns, not much will have changed in that instance from you being the primary victim. That is in actuality the easy part of the equation, and one that most of you are probably already adequately trained to accomplish.

The tough part is figuring out under what circumstances will you decide to “go big” and get involved in a problem that is not your own.

I like to establish what I call “the line.” Call it the red line, the line in the sand, whatever you want; you see where I’m going with this. The line is any act that, once you perceive it occurring, you will take action against it and damn the torpedoes.

This is a clearly delineated circumstance or assemblage of circumstances that will see you put your own life at risk on behalf of someone you don’t know and are not responsible for, physically, legally and socially as discussed above.

What is the line, what does it look like? I cannot say. That is something you must figure out for yourself, and you can only do that by synthesizing your own lifeways, morals, situation and other commitments.

For myself, if I see any adult victimizing a child, I will intervene, and it does not necessarily mean I will lead with the gun or violence but there will be a confrontation to ensure that this child is not being abused or abducted.

Honestly, I am not willing to endanger my own life and the well-being of my own family for the well-being of a stranger, particularly a grown man who should know better.

Your own line in the sand might look similar to mine or it might be very, very different. You might think I am predominantly hard-hearted and consider yourself a veritable “white knight” ready to plunge headlong into the fray to help the disadvantaged and the less fortunate. I say with no belligerence that I do not care for your judgment on the matter; our lives are not the same.

What I do care about, though, is that you care enough to go to a quiet place, sit down and really, deliberately think through all of the considerations attendant with this problem.

Really imagine yourself and your loved ones dealing with the consequences. The middle of the event is no time for “I’ll figure it out.” If you’re going to get involved, you need to know under exactly what circumstances you’ll get involved and to what degree.

If you have decided that you will not get involved under the same set of circumstances you need to know that too and know what you will do all the same, be it get away, try to call for help or whatever.

Author’s Advice

Invariably, there are some people who just want the straight answer, the straight dope. “Tom,” I can hear them clamor, “Just tell me what I should do if I happen upon a crime in progress.”

Okay fine. Reader, if you come upon somebody who is in a bad situation, you should call the police, and be a good witness. That’s it.

Not your people, not your problem, and all you will do, whatever the outcome is heap ruin upon your head, your house, and the heads of your family members by involving yourself in a situation these days.

The government at all levels would prefer us to be victims, and they will put you through the legal mill just like the criminals we fight to prove that point.

I don’t make the rules, folks. Understand that you will likely be punished in a variety of ways should you decide to make someone else’s predicament your responsibility.

This sermon is over.


Intervening in a crime in progress as a civilian is fraught with peril and is likely to have substantial consequences, physically, legally, socially or otherwise.

Preparing for such an event requires considerable introspection, considering both practical skills and moral ramifications of both action and inaction.

In our increasingly cynical and corrupt society, the author recommends that you avoid doing anything except calling police and being a good witness. The consequences for involving yourself in a situation that has not already overtaken you are just too great.

11 thoughts on “Should You Intervene if Someone Else is Being Attacked?”

  1. Thank-you for your article, and your thoughts. I actually have thought long and hard about this. We do have a most corrupt legal system, and I have had experience with the civil side of “law”. None of it was just and none of it was good, and it was all very expensive. My own lawyers in every case were the worst enemies. In my estimation lawyers/liars are the most corrupt and biggest frauds and criminals I have ever encountered. I have yet to meet an honest one. Shakespeare had it right way back in the 15th century in Henry the IV. Due to that experience, I would seriously reconsider even protecting myself in an attack on myself in self defense, or at best hesitating at the wrong time. This is a very bad way to be. Just a closing comment about lawyers, it is no coincidence that most politicians are lawyers as well, and Judges are lawyers too. Until we can fix or at least ameliorate the corrupt legal system we have now, one does not have any justice in this system. Even if one happens to “win” one loses. Never trust a lawyer, especially your own.

  2. Good advice all around. I would also add, try to avoid going to areas where there have been issues and crimes, even events likely to incite violence. Do not follow a car you “think you saw” hit a pedestrian, help the pedestrian and call 911. Do not chase a robber down event if he has your TV…it is not worth it…buy a new TV. Avoid, flee,
    de-escalate are all good words in most of these situations.

  3. As a retired police detective, I suggest that intervention, especially if physical force, or presenting deadly force is a factor, prepare to lose your home, your savings, and perhaps spend time in custody. Worst case: you may wind up physically injured or dead.

    I recommend being a good witness and using your cell phone to call police and to photograph the perp. If the perp leaves the scene before officers arrive, try to follow at a safe distance while updating the police.

    Reality is, especially in large urban cities, the cops are underfunded, under staffed, and under paid. The police are trained and equipped to handle such things, with the benefit of having legal authority on their side. Even with their legal advantages, they are still liable for personal law suits by certain well funded advocacy groups. If police officers can be vilified for using force, by politicians and news media, do you think they would hesitate to drag you through the mud?

  4. sound advice , until its your family being the victim and then you would want a stranger to assist them … so the answer is it depends ………………
    always consequences to and decision to intervene……………… stay safe
    Nice article – thought provoking

  5. Ronald Harold Levine

    1. John Adams — ‘Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.’
    2. What if the crime being committed against a victim is being done by government thugs? What if that crime is unconstitutional? What if that unconstitutional crime has been unconstitutionally made law?
    3. What if the crime is government overreach political foolishness such as wear a prop mask used to condition the masses to be accepting of Build Back Better communism?

  6. This is a great article that is an eye opener for all us thinkers that consider the risks the situation presents to us before we intervene, however real heroes only consider the consequences for the victim if they do not act, totally disregarding any and all danger to themselves “Here’s to them and those like them, damned too few”!

  7. How can the police charge the onlookers when they, themselves just stand around and let rioters harass, beat people, loot, and burn down stores and even police stations?

  8. If someone is attacking me, I the victim shouldn’t fight back? At 5′ 2″ & 130 lbs as a senior woman, I’d rather use my own Irish instinct to do as I did when I was young in the same situation. Beat the D.O.B. to a pulp since. I’ be kept in shape with weight training. Do as my USMC taught me. Dead men tell no tales.

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