That haunting photo of Ki Suk Han and the American condition

If a picture tells a thousand words, maybe it’s good that we have that photo of Ki Suk Han desperately trying to pull himself off a New York subway track as a train approached him.

It’s really all you need to know about American society right now.

You don’t need the metaphor of a fiscal cliff. That picture of Han and the train gives us the reality of where many of us are in America.

And from what happened to Mr. Han, apparently no one cares.

The New York Post and the freelance photographer have been chastised for taking and publishing the photograph. But the photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, told the TODAY show this morning, “If I could have, I would have pulled Mr. Han out. I didn’t care about the photographs.”

Abbasi said the photographs make it appear he was closer to the scene than he really was. “There is no way I could have rescued Mr. Han,” Abbasi said on TODAY. “What really surprised me is that there were people 100 feet or 150 feet away from Mr. Han and they did not reach out to help him.”

But Abbasi said people were there after impact with their phone cameras taking pictures of the dead body.

Something’s really wrong with that picture.

Ki Suk Han could have been me. Or you. He could have been just about any Asian American. Or does his ethnicity really matter? Some media outlets have blurred Han’s face from photos as if it doesn’t, or perhaps to universalize the shame. But it does matter. It makes me wonder if Han weren’t Asian American, would the results be the same–one man dead run over by a New York subway train?

From the time of the push, witnesses say there were 22 seconds where time slowed down. Try counting out 22 seconds. It’s longer than you think. More than enough to hum a few bars of the Brandenburg Concerto. More than enough for someone close by to make a decision to reach out and help.

And yet for all the 18 or so people said to have been close to Han near the 50th Street exit at the Times Square station, no one could be bothered to take the simple, yet heroic, action to reach out and help Ki Suk Han.

The Daily Mail reported how one witness, Patrick Gomez, 37, admitted he froze, and said it was “a real shame” that no one had the courage to “step up” and attempt to rescue Han.

“People who were on the platform could have pulled him up, but they didn’t have the courage. They just didn’t react like that,” Gomez said in the report.

So was it his race? The situation that found Mr. Han on the train tracks apparently stemmed from an argument with an African American, who was arrested today on 2d degree murder charges.

Others on the platform could have acted to help, but didn’t. They just saw a man, an Asian man struggling, looking for a hand up.

In 22 seconds, he got nothing.

Maybe after the Romney campaign, and all the talks of cutting safety nets like Social Security, we have come to a point where we really don’t care. Is it really every man for himself in America?

Maybe it will be Han, an Asian American, who will focus attention on how cold an uncaring America has become. I know it’s New York. But even New Yorkers fiercely pride themselves in being there for their fellow New Yorkers–most of the time.

If you are of a certain generation, then the name Kitty Genovese is forever etched on your mind.

I know it is in my mind. I was in elementary school when I first heard her story. It was March 13, 1964. I haven’t forgotten how Genovese was murdered and 38 people could have–but didn’t–help her.

Maybe Ki Suk Han will be remembered the same way, as a reminder of our minimized humanity, and failure to care. And as a sign, that we must always do better.

Coming at a time when conservatives want to shred our nation’s safety nets, seeing Han may be just what our country needs.

No hero stepped up for Han. But his image may save us all from the worst part of ourselves.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

Read Emil's full bio →