Society has officially gone so far down the rabbit hole that it’ll never crawl back out. We’ve reached a point at which helping an accident victim can get you sued by the victim or his family. Helping a little old lady across the street can get you arrested for “touching her”. You’ll laugh, but if I encounter an injured hiker or other visitor in one of the parks at which I’m employed, I’m required (for legal reasons) to ask permission to touch him/her before assisting.

I’ve done a lot of joking on this blog about why I love Golden Age comic books. I guess one of the real reasons I love them is because I respect and admire the civic-mindedness of the people of that era, whom Tom Brokaw has sappily, but not inaccurately, named “the greatest generation”. My dad was a WWII airman, decorated many times. He didn’t much care for the experience; asking him about it would receive a stony silence in reply, a sort of “grim resolve” which is familiar to readers of the comics of the era. Men of my father’s time didn’t make a big deal out of doing the job — they just got the damned job done. Mom, on the other hand, was never reluctant to talk about her experiences of the war years; she was a proud “Rosie the Riveter”, working in a manufacturing plant cranking out bombers for the air forces (yes, there was more than one air force in those days). She lost part of her hearing in that job; she worked in cramped quarters in the tail section of the bombers and, as a rivet was driven in from outside the plane, her job was to bash it with a hammer from the inside. The constant hammering inside that cramped little cone caused her to suffer significant hearing loss, but Mom never complained; she was proud of her work and service, considering it one of the finest times of her life.

I could go on and on (as I have quite a few friends and acquaintances who grew up in the period from 1930 to 1950), but the common thread here is that many of these folks grew up with a strong sense of ethics and a willingness (a sense of duty, really) to serve their communities. And, conversely, these folks also understood the meaning of gratitude and appreciation; when somebody did you a good turn, you said “thank you” and meant it. Although it’s considered hokey today, selfless deserving souls really did get honored with medals and “keys to the city” back then.

That’s a scene you’ll see time and again in 1940’s-era comic books. The hero or heroine performs a selfless act (typically saving lives or something that leads to a saving of lives, such as thwarting saboteurs, spies, or fifth columnists) and get a little bit of well-earned gratitude at the end of the tale. They don’t do it for the gratitude (an accusation which some critics of the genre cynically make today); back then, people weren’t nearly as reluctant to say “thanks” and “you’re welcome” as they seem to be today. The hero or heroine would perform the selfless act because it’s the right thing to do, and get a “thank you” in return because that, too, is just the right thing to do.

Fast forward to today, a time in which an all-too common comic book plot (repeated so often these days that’s it’s become a cliché) revolves around the public disdain for heroes and heroism. “So the guy saved me from that burning car wreck. Big deal. Who the hell does he think he is – some kind of big shot?” It’s sometimes followed by the related trope/cliché of the disgusted hero walking away from “the life” and then being excoriated by the public for his “refusal to help” (yes, Kingdom Come, I’m looking at you here, although this is just one of several intertwined plot points in that tale).

Ultimately it’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” which, unfortunately, seems to have become our societal “norm”, so we shouldn’t be at all surprised to see this attitude reflected in our present-day comics.

But, even so, once in a while you come across a news story of such mind-boggling stupidity that it literally staggers you:

Walmart employees fired after stopping robbery

I saw this story on CNN this morning over breakfast and nearly did a classic “spit take”. Here’s the short version. A guy (who happens to be a multiple felon currently wanted on several warrants) walks into a Wal-Mart and shoplifts a computer. Security apprehends the guy and they take him back to the security office. Once they’re there, the guy (standing between the security guys and the only door out of the room) whips out a gun. The four employees snatch the gun and hold the guy down until the police arrive.

And the four employees are subsequently fired. Here’s Wal-Mart’s official canned response (probably written by some P.R. wonk who would undoubtedly just crap himself or herself if ever confronted by the business end of a firearm) when asked about it:

We appreciate the intentions demonstrated by our associates in this situation, but the actions taken put their safety, and potentially the safety of our customers and other associates in jeopardy.

If the account in the news story is accurate, the only people at risk were the four employees. And their actions didn’t “put them at risk”: they were already “at risk” as soon as the pistol came out.

I’ll refrain from a major rant about how much I despise Wal-Mart anyway (I’ve had nothing but bad experiences with the company, which is why I will buy an item anywhere else before I’ll buy it at Wal-Mart) but this story really takes the cake. It’s another example of a company hiding behind the “employee handbook” to avoid having to make an ethical judgment — hell, to avoid making an evaluation of any kind.

And, if you are a loyal Wal-Mart customer (against all rational thought), think of what this paragraph means viz. your personal safety in their “fine” establishment:

The workers…were fired for violating the store’s policy on shoplifters, known as “AP09” [which] shows employees are allowed to use reasonable force to limit movements of struggling suspects. But if a gun comes out, associates must disengage and withdraw.

…which means that if an armed assailant attacks you in a Wal-Mart store, don’t expect any help from the employees (including security): with this corporate incident setting such a fine example, retaining that $9.40 an hour job will mean more to them than your sorry ass does. Think about that the next time the greeter fakes a smile at you when you walk into the store.

Back in my parents’ day, stopping an armed robbery earned you a hearty “thank you” and the key to the city. Today all it gets you is “Turn in your keys”.

We are so screwed.


Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.