On June 6, Aaron Ybarra, a young 26-year-old student with mental health problems in his past, entered the building that houses the Department of Science and Engineering at the University of Seattle with a shotgun.* He shot the first four men that he found in front of him. One of them, a 19-year-old student, later died in the hospital. Then he stopped to reload his weapon to commence a second round. Jon Meis, a 22-year-old electrical engineering student, used the killer’s moment of hesitation and attacked him with pepper spray. Other students ran and blocked Aaron.
The U.S. press began to investigate the life of this heroic student. They found that Jon is engaged to Kaylie, and that the two are hoping to get married on June 21. Many people feel the need to do something to reward the young man for his courage: By using pepper spray, he avoided a massacre. And so that is how the link to their wedding list began to circulate on social networks, and in just a few hours all the items listed were purchased by great unknown people. But this is not enough, because the desire to donate money to Jon and Kaylie seems to be really high. And now, Jessamyn McIntyre, a journalist from the sports channel ESPN, who does not know the young couple beyond what the press has written about Jon, decided to launch a crowd funding campaign on the Internet site GoFundMe. The intention was to collect the money necessary to pay for their honeymoon. The target was $5,000, but in less than three days, $50,000 was donated.
This typical American story is very interesting because Jon’s action was able to put into motion a fast and efficient voluntary economic redistribution mechanism, which is usually fundamental when dealing with humanitarian crises. However, in the presence of humanitarian crises — those relating to food above all — [these mechanisms] are never this fast or this efficient.
Jon saved many lives, and the people who were left so impressed by his altruism that they wanted to reward him could have done this by sending a small sum of money to those who live in particularly disadvantageous conditions, or those who really risk dying due to a lack of economic resources: the two million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, for example. Or the 2.5 million people in the Central African Republic who have desperate need of humanitarian aid. Or the 7 million people at risk of food insecurity in South Sudan. And there seem to be numerous ways to do it — via the U.N. Refugee Agency website or other non-governmental organizations, such as Save the Children and Oxfam, who try to address the depravations of those most vulnerable.
Jon’s story, and that of his wedding, is similar in many ways to the famous case of Jessica McCluse, remembered by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in his book, “The Life You Can Save – How to Play Your Part in Ending World Poverty,” published in 2009. In October 1987, Jessica, an 18-month-old baby who lived in Texas, fell into a well almost seven meters (about 23 feet) deep. The rescuers worked for two and a half days to pull her out. The case caught the immediate attention of the media, and CNN offered a live non-stop feed of the rescue operation. When Jessica was finally returned to the surface, she had become a millionaire because while she was in the well, U.S. citizens had begun donating money. There was never any official data on the exact figure, but it is almost certain that the donations went beyond a million dollars.
Peter Singer points out, using the estimates from UNICEF, that in those two and a half days that Jessica was trapped underground, around 67,000 children in the rest of world died due to a lack of economic resources [or] of hunger, or due to illnesses such as measles, diarrhea or malaria, which are easily curable with laughabl[y small] sums. Only a few dollars could have saved them. Jessica did not need money: She only needed somebody who could pull her out of the well.
American psychologist Paul Slovic offered an explanation for this type of phenomenon. The compassion that an identifiable victim is able to create with a face and a precise story is always higher than the compassion created by a higher number of unspecified statistical victims. This has also been demonstrated in a number of behavioral psychology experiments performed with the colleagues of Deborah Small and George Loewenstein.
Jon’s case is extremely peculiar because it introduces a third figure into the classic “identifiable victim vs. statistical victim” frame — the hero who intervenes to stop multiple identifiable victims. Between the three, it is he who triumphs as the hero, the only person who does not need help. In fact, the hundreds of people who donated money to the young student did it via the crowd funding website, where they found themselves in front of the real and true victims, mostly Americans, who they ignored. This has reached disproportionate levels to the point that it has almost left Jon himself embarrassed. It was he himself, via an article published on the University of Seattle* website on June 9, who thanked everyone for their generosity and asked that any future donations be given to the victims of the shooting.
*Editor’s Note: This shooting occurred at Seattle Pacific University, not the University of Seattle.