What is the measure of a man’s life? Is it the things he accomplishes? The sum total of all his good deeds? Perhaps. But as I think back on my life, it seems like it’s not the things I did, but the things I did not do that cast the longest shadow. The moments when I could have taken action, but instead chose to do nothing. One such moment weighs on me more than the rest.
I was there when that dog told the Son of Sam to kill all those people. And I did nothing.
Even though it happened many years ago, the memory of the event is still fresh in my mind. On a Tuesday in December of 1975, I was walking down a street in New York when I witnessed a black labrador retriever talking to a man who appeared to be in his mid- to late twenties. I very quickly ascertained that the dog was giving the man orders in spoken English to kill people. Many people. At this point, I could have intervened in some way. Instead, I just walked away.
That man was David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam. And over the course of the next two years, he would go on a terrifying murder spree that would ultimately claim the lives of six people, all because that dog told him to do it. And to think I could have stopped it all if I had just told the dog to be quiet.
The truth is, I was scared. The dog seemed pretty angry, and I didn’t want it to get mad at me.
I struggle with that decision every day.
I could have done something. Maybe I could have stood between David and the dog so that he wouldn’t be able to hear what the dog was saying to him. Or maybe I could have chased the dog away. I often think that if I had just been brave enough to step in and say something like, “Hey, don’t listen to that dog!” who knows how many lives I might have saved? Instead, I did nothing. And the choice I made has haunted me ever since.
Of course, I spent years making excuses for my actions. I told myself that the dog and David were having a private conversation and it wasn’t my place to butt in. I told myself that it would have been rude to interrupt.
The truth is, I was scared. The dog seemed pretty angry, and I didn’t want it to get mad at me. Now, six lives have been lost, all because I was too nervous to go up to that dog and tell it to stop telling David Berkowitz to kill a bunch of people.
I let a lot of people down that day just by deciding to not stand up to that dog. The Son of Sam’s victims. David Berkowitz. Myself. And I have to live with that guilt for the rest of my life.