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Mona Charen / Aug. 4, 2009

No Individual Initiative Please! We're Americans

A plucky teller foiled a robbery attempt at Key Bank in Seattle. But the story does not end happily. When a small man in a beanie cap, dark clothing, and sunglasses pushed a backpack across the counter and announced, “This is a ransom. Fill the bag with money,” teller Jim Nicholson ignored his training and “instinct took over.” He lunged across the counter and attempted to grab the thief by the throat or at least to pull his glasses off. The nonplussed would-be robber bolted for the door with Nicholson on his heels. A couple of blocks away, with the help of others, Nicholson tackled the guy and held him until police arrived.

Two days later, Key Bank got in touch with Nicholson. A bonus perhaps? A commendation? Not quite. He was fired. It seems he had violated the bank’s strict policy that tellers should always comply with robber demands. A Key Bank spokesman has not returned a call asking for comment.

“We always recommend citizens, including employees of institutions, be good witnesses,” Seattle police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb told the Seattle Times. “When confronted by a violent criminal, it is best to comply unless they feel their personal safety is in jeopardy. It is possible that taking action and confronting the criminal may lead to the injury of the victim or other bystanders.”

A nation of “good witnesses” – is that what we aspire to be? Tame victims who hand over the money and file legible police reports? Mentioned in passing in the AP’s account is a factor that may be more important than any other in explaining the passivity banks require of their employees: “Police and the FBI discourage such heroics” for money that is “federally insured.” Now we get to the nub.

Federal insurance has doubtless spared the nation the agony of bank runs. But by immediately replacing losses due to crime, it saps some of the righteous anger from victims. Don’t attempt to nab the guy, just fill out the proper paperwork.

My husband and I had the experience of being robbed by a babysitter who found my blank checks and wrote herself the most generous compensation for a three-hour work shift in the history of baby-sitting. I was shocked, when I reported this to bank employees, at their utter lack of interest in details about the larcenist. I had her address, phone number, and likely whereabouts. Yawn. Not interested (nor were the police – a story for another day). Bank employees assured me that our $5,000 would be immediately credited to our account. As for the thief – no action. Compensation thus undermines justice.

Deposit insurance cannot explain all of it, though. Some of this is the bureaucratization of America – the deliberate attempt to drain individual judgment and initiative from life. While Nicholson was sprinting after a thief, a Fairfax County, Va., man was issued a ticket for stopping traffic to permit a gaggle of geese to cross a four-lane highway safely.

We see Canadian geese crossing roadways all the time here in Fairfax County. Usually it’s an adult goose followed by four to six fuzzy gray goslings with another adult goose bringing up the rear. One assumes a family unit. Jozsef Vamosi was driving to work around 9:30 a.m. when he saw such a family assembling to cross a busy thoroughfare. “They were walking like gentlemen,” Vamosi told the Washington Post. “Like the Beatles on ‘Abbey Road.’” Vamosi got out of his car, held up a hand to stop traffic and escorted the birds to the median. He then did the same thing on the other side of the road. The geese went safely on their way. “Everything came out fantastic,” the Hungarian immigrant explained. That is, until a Fairfax County police officer arrived on the scene berating Vamosi and questioning his sanity. Vamosi was issued a ticket for jaywalking. A police spokesman advised, “We can appreciate the citizen’s response and compassion for wildlife. But a more prudent response would be to pull off the road and use their cellphone. Call the police, and have them respond.”

By the time even the most responsive police could have arrived for such a call (and don’t they have more important matters to attend to?) the geese would have been pate. Nicholson and Vamosi acted on impulse – and I for one would not like to live in a country where such instincts have been ironed out of us.

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