This recent story from Slate was definitely a shocker:
It seems like a crazy urban legend: In China, drivers who have injured pedestrians will sometimes then try to kill them. And yet not only is it true, it’s fairly common; security cameras have regularly captured drivers driving back and forth on top of victims to make sure that they are dead. The Chinese language even has an adage for the phenomenon: “It is better to hit to kill than to hit and injure.”
This 2008 television report features security camera footage of a dusty white Passat reversing at high speed and smashing into a 64-year-old grandmother. The Passat’s back wheels bounce up over her head and body. The driver, Zhao Xiao Cheng, stops the car for a moment then hits the gas, causing his front wheels to roll over the woman. Then Zhao shifts into drive, wheels grinding the woman into the pavement. Zhao is not done. Twice more he shifts back and forth between drive and reverse, each time thudding over the grandmother’s body. He then speeds away from her corpse.
Smelling a story that was too interesting to be true, I texted a friend who lives in China. He read the article and texted back that every word was correct. This behaviour was so common that it was a kind of dark joke. The phrase "drive to kill" was considered practical life advice for young and old alike. These are not members of some obscure and barbarous cult. China is one of the oldest and most accomplished of human civilizations.
The legal explanation for this - a moral explanation I suspect is impossible - is a combination of a weak insurance system and easily bribable courts. An injured pedestrian can become a lifetime financial liability for the driver. Murder convictions, even in cases with clear video evidence, are still unusual. Faced with a choice of becoming a bankrupt or a murderer the popular choice seems to be the latter.
Homo homini lupus est. Man is wolf to man.
Mainland China is, of course, a dictatorship. It seems likely that in a functioning liberal democracy, such as those of the West, very basic legal reforms would long ago have been implemented to remove these quite literally perverse incentives. The rulers of China have deigned it beneath their notice to make such minor improvements.
Keep in mind that private cars were virtually unknown in China until late 1980s. In about a quarter of a century the culture of an ancient nation has adapted itself to accept vehicular manslaughter as a matter of course. Before we start searching for some special perversity of the Chinese soul, let us remember that every civilized nation has tolerated small and great acts of barbarism. We shudder today at horrors our grandfathers accepted without notice or complaint.
Reading this story placed me on edge. It was a reminder how much of civilized and humane life rests on social consent. In the world of the theologians and philosophers we each have a moral compass, some infallible device that - if we listen to it - will drive us away from gross evil. Running over small children with SUVs requires no subtle moral judgement. It is murder albeit with little premeditation. For many people, I suspect, Jiminy Cricket died a very long time ago.
What we tolerate is often what others tolerate. Perhaps it's fear of falling out of line, perhaps it's that beyond our own kith and kin we don't really care about others. We try to navigate life by following social cues and don't much delve below the surface. If we don't get caught then what really is the problem? The angels of our better nature are usually other people, those with enough moral awareness to speak out when necessary.
Edmund Burke never said: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." It's the sort of thing he should have said. It's the sort of thing we need to remind ourselves of from time to time.