Ki Suk Han subway tragedy: What would you do?

The controversial cover of the New York Post, featured on newstands Dec., 4, 2012.
The controversial cover of the New York Post, featured on newstands Dec., 4, 2012.

The Christmas season death of Ki Suk Han, who on Monday was pushed off a subway platform and into the path of an oncoming Q train following a platform dispute, has fueled an intense debate about personal versus collective responsibility after the image of Han's last moments of life were splashed across the front page of a tabloid.

The outrage initially targeted 30-year-old Naeem Davis, a drifter with a criminal record who police say launched Han onto the tracks. His path through the legal system began yesterday when he was arrested near 50th Street and Seventh Avenue.

But now photographer R. Umar Abbasi is at the center of the storm after he snapped the accompanying photo featured with the New York Post's cover story Tuesday. The Post doubled-down on the editorial judgement with a follow-up story headlined "Photographer: My snap decision," and a personal defense deck-lined "ARMCHAIR CRITICS WRONG."

Abassi restated his case this morning on the Today Show. "If this thing happened again with the same circumstances, whether I had a camera or not and I was running towards it, there was no way I could've rescued Mr. Han,'' he said. "If I was in a reachable distance, I would've grabbed him and tried to pull him.''

He plays the villain to many--the photographer who took the picture rather than attempt what could have been a dangerous rescue. That perception combined with the power of that chilling picture and it took off. Social media confirmed: Abbasi's personal responsibility was on the cover of that newspaper, not helping a stranger in need.

And so what about the Post's responsibility in all of this?

One of my colleagues today described the tabloid as "despicable" --not only running the photo yesterday with "DOOMED" stripped across Han's final breath—but bringing it back today for a second go. They even did an item about their star turn in their very own controversy.

No one can deny a legitimate standards case against running it—even despite its (now very clearly) massive news value. And so for them, personal responsibility was selling the story.

The reportage--which has been characteristically strong, and credit to the Post for much of it—also suggests that other fellow commuters might have helped. One of Abbasi's own photos shows a group of several straphangers trying to flag down veteran motorman Terrence Legree. They're all at the end of the tunnel while Han stands alone.

Collective failure never feels good--especially not in this season of goodwill, after a sobering presidential election and amid the bitterness of the fiscal cliff debate and Christmas shopping.

Collective failure also overlooks the moment-to-moment displays of goodwill and neighborly compassion that go unnoticed all the time--not just in the holiday season.

But one thing collective failure also does is provoke soul-searching. And in this case, the consensus at least seems to be that everyone could do a little bit better.

There's nothing more satisfying, after all, than collective achievement.

Author's Note: Another colleague told me this morning that if you ever fall in the tracks, it is more logical to run away from the train than it is to try to jump out. It might buy the conductor enough time to stop that train. A handy and so seemingly obvious tip I had never thought of.