Murder By Inaction YKTTW Discussion

Murder By Inaction
Deliberately not saving someone.
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(permanent link) added: 2012-10-07 11:37:58 sponsor: Delphi edited by: ginsengaddict (last reply: 2014-03-11 20:48:08)

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What we have here is an ethical dilemma:
'Less I help him get the mask removed, he doesn't have a prayer;
True the gun as never fired, but the way events transpired
I could finish him with simple laissez faire.
What we have here is a tricky moral problem:
Do I help remove the mask, or let him go for lack of air?
Couldn't shoot him when I tried, but the fates are on my side;
I can off the guy by staying in the chair!
Little Shop of Horrors, sung by Seymour

Vegeta: You... green thing... heal me...
Dende: Oh? I'm sorry, I'm having a hard time hearing you over the smell of my people's blood on your hands.
Vegeta: Oh no... Do not be that guy right now!
Dende: Oh, I'm going to be that guy right now.

A convenient way to deal with someone you want dead is to simply not save their life when a situation arises in which their death is inevitable.

Killing is messy. You have to deal with those pesky murder charges, or go to the effort of engineering a convenient "accident" to avert suspicion, or clean up the crime scene to hide your involvement. But as fate would have it, if your foe winds up in a fatal position and you are their only means of survival, all you have to do to kill them... is nothing at all.

In Real Life, this concept is called the duty to rescue. According to The Other Wiki, the failure to offer help for those in need is rarely considered a crime, but there are some countries where people are obligated by the law to come to the aid of those in life peril. In Serbia for example, abandoning a helpless person can earn you a prison sentence of up to one year — eight years if the person in question dies because of the lack of help.

Compare Make It Look Like an Accident and Suicide, Not Murder. Contrast Accidental Murder. Contrast/Compare Failure-to-Save Murder, where someone is held responsible for a death, because they tried and failed to prevent it. Is often the Start of Darkness for a character.

No Real Life Examples, Please!

As a Death Trope, all spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


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     Comic Books 

  • Batman: In issue #633, Robin (Stephanie Brown) dies due to torture and Batman later discovers that Dr. Leslie Thompkins deliberately withheld treatment that could've saved her life but chose not to in order to teach the kids of Gotham a lesson about superheroing. This was retconned into Thompkins making Batman think that Stephanie died, but she didn't really die.
  • Marshal Law: At the climax of the "Kingdom of the Blind" storyarc, Law is very much capable of helping the Private Eye up rather than let him fall to his death. Watching from across the room, Law jokingly insists he "can't quite reach" as the Private Eye struggles and eventually falls.


  • Batman Begins: Batman uses this as a loophole around his "no killing" rule to dispose of Ra's al Ghul, who's caught on an about-to-crash train.
    Batman: I won't kill you... but I don't have to save you.
  • The Fifth Element: Subverted. Immediately after Zorg gives Cornelius a diatribe about survival of the fittest and the necessity of destruction, he starts choking on a fruit. Cornelius takes some time to point out the irony, but ultimately performs the Heimlich to save him.
  • Frozen: Attempted by Prince Hans when he first chooses to withhold a potentially life-saving Almost Kiss from Anna, then leaving her to succumb to her frozen heart. You could argue that he also sped up the process by extinguishing flames, but ultimately, it was a choice not to save, rather than to kill.
  • Gladiator: After Maximus disarms Commodus in the arena, Commodus immediately starts demanding one of the surrounding Praetorian Guard to give him a sword. If he hadn't recently and publicly dishonored his own royal guards, they might have.


  • Several murders in Agatha Christie novels, notably in And Then There Were None about an old couple who are accused of doing this to their previous mistress to inherit from her.
  • In one Stephen King book (name, anyone?) a young boy's father has a heart attack in the woods, and he tells the boy to run to the house and get his pills. But on the way to the house, the boy starts thinking about all the horrific sexual abuses his father has inflicted on him, and starts running slower and slower until he's at a leisurely walk. And what do you know, he’s too late.
  • From Dr. Isaac Asimov's I Robot collection, "Little Lost Robot": This is a concern of Dr. Susan Calvin. A robot has been built with a modified First Law, which in its case permits a robot to allow a human to come to harm via inaction. Calvin posits a situation where a robot with this modification can commit murder - by dropping a heavy weight above a human, knowing that its quick reflexes will allow it to catch the weight in time to not harm the human; but then having dropped the weight it has the ability to decide not to catch the weight.
  • Redwall: Ungatt Trunn dies when, after surviving being thrown into the sea with a broken back, finds himself stranded as the tide comes in. Then his much-abused former seer shows up to gloat, not doing a thing to get him out of the rising water.

     Live Action TV 

  • Babylon 5: Out of jealousy, Lennier's final act on the show was to leave Sheridan behind locked door, flooding with toxic gas. Subverted, in that, A.) he has a change of heart and goes back to correct the mistake, and B.) he returns to find others have arrived to save the day, and is forced to go on the run.
  • Breaking Bad: Walt watches Jesse's girlfriend, Jane choke to death on her own vomit (she'd shot up with heroin). Jane had earlier demanded Walt fork over some drug money and threatened to rat him out. Made worse in that Walt had moved Jane on to her back in order to wake Jesse up, and thus inadvertently caused her death as well.
  • Law & Order: UK: In the episode "Samaritan", based on the original Law & Order episode "Manhood"[[note:Which had more or less the same plot, but involved a gang of officers instead of just one.]], a homophobic policeman is discovered to have essentially killed his (gay) colleague by not getting him any help when he was shot (the courtroom section of the episode is mostly based around proving he was there and deliberately didn't do anything).
  • Luther: The biggest source of blackmail against Luther comes from the opening scene in the pilot, when a child molestor nearly falls to his death while fleeing capture. Instead of helping the molestor back on his feet, Luther lets the man fall to his death.
  • Medium: In one episode, a young Allison has visions about one of her friends. She sees that, by knocking on his door, she will stop him from killing himself, and many years later he will rape and murder teenage girls. So a few days later, she decides to not interrupt his suicide.
  • Midsomer Murders: There's one where a snobby wine lover is tied to his lawn while the murderer is catapulting wine bottles at him. His wife comes to the window and sees the whole thing (though the murderer remains unidentified). When she sees the bottle miss, she calls out corrections to the murderer. The next morning, the police arrive but she of course didn't see anything.
  • Orphan Black: Suspecting Aynsley to be her monitor (erroneously), Alison does nothing to prevent Aynsley from accidentally strangling herself with a scarf and a drain grinder.
  • Person of Interest: At the end of the episode Reasonable Doubt, John decides the POI and her husband just aren't worth saving, and leaves a gun for the husband to even the odds in allowing them to kill each other.
  • This is how Xena: Warrior Princess originally killed Callisto; they tumbled down a hill, Callisto landed in quicksand and Xena simply let her sink. She got better though, multiple times.


  • In Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away" a young girl gets rid of her abusive father by locking herself in the cellar while he’s passed out drunk and there’s a tornado headed straight for the house.
  • A popular Urban Legend surrounds the Phil Collins song "In The Air Tonight". The legend usually involves someone watching someone else drown to death and being unwilling to help along with several other variations. In actuality, the song was about a divorce.


  • In Lillian Hellman's 1939 play The Little Foxes (later made into a 1941 film starring Bette Davis), Horace decides to cut his evil wife Regina out of his will, and tells her so. Shortly thereafter he feels a heart attack coming on and asks Regina for his pills. She does nothing, instead watching as he collapses. He dies a few hours later without changing his will.
  • Little Shop of Horrors: Seymour tries to shoot Orin the Depraved Dentist, but can't bring himself to. Moments later, Orin gets himself high inside a mask full of gas, but finds he can't get it off and begs Seymour to help him get it off (while he laugh maniacally.) Seymour just stands by and Orin suffocates.

     Video Games 

  • Amnesia: Justine: The titular character is presented with the option of doing this three times.
  • Ghost Recon: Future Soldier: The Ghost team deployed in Russia was about to take out the leader of the coup in Moscow when they were ordered by the US government to take him in alive. Ghost Leader is pissed off at this, but doesn't do anything to help the coup leader escape from being killed by an incoming train since he said "our orders were not to touch you."
  • Heavy Rain:
    • Norman Jayden can do this if he fights the Origami Killer in the end. The alternative is to save him and then kill him.
    • Shelby can also do this to Charles Kramer by not giving him his pills while he's having a heart attack.

     Web Original 

  • Dragon Ball Z Abridged: Following the scene where Krillan has mortally wounded Vegeta (as Vegeta requested), Dende is understandably unwilling to heal him on account of his partaking in the Namekian genocide. He reluctantly does so when Gohan points out how screwed they are without Vegeta's assistance.

     Western Animation 

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: In a flashback showing parts of Roku's life, Sozin leaves Roku to die when the latter accidentally inhales toxic fumes from an erupting volcano.

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