What I wondered, reading the story on Thursday that Matthew Marry, 29, and Kristine Tiger, 28, had pleaded guilty, was how they had gotten to the point they were at last July, when they took part in trying to cover up the truth of a fatal boat crash.
What had brought them to that point, that they could hear the screams of a family in terrible distress and leave? How could they keep quiet when they found out a little girl had been killed?
Everyone knows what happened. Marry and Tiger were in a boat on Lake George with a couple of other young friends and Alexander West, who was driving. It was night, they had been partying and they were going fast. They smashed into and over another vessel, and then through the darkness and the sudden stillness came the screams of horror and pain.
Maybe it was fear that drove them away and the feeling that, because they were in a group, they weren’t individually responsible for staying and helping. It’s much easier to be cowards collectively.
I have a theory that evil acts aren’t decided in the moment, but are prepared for through everyday choices. If you move through your days with meanness, refusing to reach out to people who could use some sympathy and generosity, inflating your own worth by deflating others, then when the moral test comes, you will fail it.
We strengthen our consciences through our small choices, to be kind or cruel, the way we build up our bodies through exercise or our minds through reading and writing, thinking and discussing. If something happens that challenges us to do the right thing under duress, we will react according to the way we’ve trained ourselves.
The little things matter — the way we respond when we bump into someone in the grocery store, what we say when someone writes something on Facebook we disagree with.
I’m going to resist the temptation to make this column a diatribe about rudeness online. Pointing out that other people are being rude can be, in itself, just another way to score rhetorical points.
I’m trying to say something about how we choose to conduct ourselves.
I’m trying to say something to myself primarily, so I can learn from this appalling case.
I don’t know what Matthew Marry and Kristine Tiger were like before that night on the lake. But I’m guessing the choice they made in that terrible moment, to run away from a scene in which innocent people had been horribly injured, didn’t come out of nowhere.
Most of us will never have to face a test of right and wrong in circumstances as severe as those that confronted Marry, Tiger and their friends last July. But we face our own little tests every day, and our own little acts of kindness or callousness ripple out into the world, and over our lifetime, determine the impact of the person we were.