Stanley Milgram Knows His Stuff

Det. Paul Falsone: You know, I was thinking of printing up one of those bikini calendars. You know, “The Cops of Baltimore”-type thing.
Det. Rey Curtis: What happened?
Det. Paul Falsone: You seen the cops in Baltimore?

Homicide: Life on the Street, “Baby, It’s You” (11/14/97)

So this evening I’d just poured myself a nice cup of tea, and I stepped out back to stand on the deck and call in the dog, when I heard a peculiar sound. It was the sound of an accident that took place on the main road, a couple of hundred feet from my house. What made it peculiar is that it sounded backward: BANG, then screeeeeeech!

The accident being clearly nearby, I grabbed my phone and walked out to the road. The accident was actually almost a block further south than I thought. One car had rear-ended another, and they were both blocking the better part of this four-lane road. Both cars had about a half-dozen people each surrounding them, but it didn’t look like anyone was on their phone, so I made the call to 911 and reported the accident.

Now, it was actually possible for the traffic to squeeze through a single lane, but of course everyone on foot was still hanging around the cars, so I grabbed one guy and told him to help direct traffic for the southbound side, and I’d take the northbound. He and I coordinated this single-lane traffic until the police arrived and blocked off the lane. So now there was no northbound traffic, and the southbound also had nowhere to go, so I started directing southbound cars down a side street.

And kept on directing cars down the side street.

And kept on doing it.

Now, I’m just some guy out there in street clothes. Fortunately my shirt is light colored, because it was pretty dark out there. But I’m standing there in front of an accident, waving at cars and directing them down the road, and they’re actually going for it. One guy in a taxi told me he just had to get over there to that block, and at first he couldn’t get it through his head that there’s glass and car parts everywhere. “You need to go down there and come back around,” I said.

“But I need to get over there,” he said again.

Finally I lost patience. “I. Don’t. Care. Go. Around!” He sighed and complied.

I did this for almost an hour. After maybe a half-hour, a truck drove up with traffic cones and such in the back. As he got out of the truck  I asked him if he was taking over. “Nope,” he said. “I just came to pick up my sign over there.” He pointed to a RIGHT LANE CLOSED AHEAD sign on the sidewalk. But then he broke out about 10 cones and put them across the road for me, telling me to just stack them on the sidewalk when I was done, and he’d get them later. He got his sign and took off.

At one point one of the cops came over and thanked me, because they were short-handed and couldn’t get another car to that side of the accident to block off the road.

But here’s the weird thing. At one point there was a lull in the traffic and I got curious to see whether the person in the car that had been hit was still there. And sure enough, she was. Then the penny dropped. I knew this woman. She was my neighbor from the house behind me. I turned around and her husband was right there. I asked him how he was doing. He told me “Not so good.” Well, sure. He wasn’t in the car, but heard the commotion and came out, like the rest of us. Only in his case, he found his wife in one of the mangled vehicles.

This woman is pretty tight with Wife, so I figured she’d want to know what had happened. Wife had already gone upstairs, so I knew she didn’t have her phone on her, but she probably had her tablet, so I broke out my phone and fired up Facebook Messenger, and let her know.

“XX was just in an accident.”

“How do you know”

“Because I’m at the accident scene.”


“Out on YY Road.”

She was outside in about three minutes. By then the neighbor had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and her husband was with the tow truck driver, trying to figure out how to tow the car safely the half-mile to his preferred garage. Meanwhile I’m still directing traffic. Some people stopped to ask about getting back to the main road, a couple whined at me about how their destination was so close by and do they really have to go around? (Yes, dammit.) But in the end, they all just listened to the random guy who just walked out into the middle of the street and started waving at cars, stopping them so others could move through, and so on.

You know, back in 1961, a psychologist named Stanley Milgram did an experiment that essentially measured people’s response to authority figures. People would do terrible things to other people (not really, it was a setup), simply because other people who were wearing lab coats told them to do so. It was a fascinating experiment that was inspired by the Nazi “I was just following orders” defense after the war. And sure enough, these people, who were asked to administer electric shocks to other people, said similar things: “I didn’t want to, but he kept telling me to.” or “I was going to stop, but…”

Somehow I feel as though I was a kind of living example of this experiment.

Here’s the Milgram footage, if you’re curious. It’s fascinating stuff.