The Gauntlet

When citizens do good deeds

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Sometimes it seems like the difference between taking responsibility for one's own actions and blaming someone else is a lawsuit.

On October 16, 2002, all seven members of the Dawson family of Baltimore were killed when their house was set on fire in retaliation for reporting drug dealers to the police. It was the second such incident for the Dawsons, as their house had been firebombed on Oct. 3. A local drug dealer has been arrested and charged for the deaths of two adults and their five school-aged children.

Afterwards, relatives retained legal counsel in the form of Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. (yes, that Johnnie Cochran). Cochran's firm is investigating whether the city of Baltimore can be held legally culpable for failing to protect the Dawson family after the first incident. Additionally, the firm is alleging that the city's "Baltimore Believe" campaign--an anti-drug campaign in which citizens are encouraged to speak out against dealers--is partially responsible for the deaths.

So much for altruism.

Since when did encouraging people to perform good deeds become the basis of a lawsuit? The lawyers contend that the Believe campaign was reckless and failed to offer sufficient protection to witnesses who stepped up. Should the city have taken better care of the Dawsons, and by implication, every person who reported a dealer as part of the campaign? How could it?

The purpose of doing a good deed, of being altruistic, is that someone else comes first. It is an unselfish act which can make you vulnerable to risk. An obvious risk is taken when the good deed is reporting neighbourhood drug dealers, and the Dawson family knew, and unfortunately paid for, that risk.

According to Baltimore authorities, the police offered to relocate the Dawsons after the firebombing, but the family refused, saying that drug dealers would not force them out of their own neighbourhood. By refusing to move away, the Dawsons also took responsibility for their own actions and courageously stood up for what they believed in. Introducing a lawsuit perpetuates a culture of blame wherein money can be squeezed from those found legally accountable. Why perpetuate this cycle? Why put a price on altruism?

I should point out that at this time, a lawsuit had not yet been filed, though the city of Baltimore expects a memo outlining the legal and factual basis for the suit soon. I also concede that other points of the potential suit make sense, such as the fact that the accused was violating his probation and should have been in jail. However, even partially blaming the Believe campaign for the Dawson family's death strikes a blow against speaking out and doing the right thing. Extrapolate to an extreme, and it feels like the Dawsons themselves, had they survived, could be sued for being good people and therefore making themselves vulnerable to retaliation. The idealist in me despairs at the thought.