John Claypool tells of this story in the writings of Albert Camus.
The leader of the French liberal political party—a man recognized nationally for being the champion of the underdog, always challenging big government, big business, always taking up for the little person—happened to be walking one evening after work by a river, close to his house. A young girl came paddling by in a canoe. She hit something, and the canoe capsized. The girl was not a good swimmer, and she began to sink and cried out for help. She came up twice, and then the third time, she disappeared. The water became very, very smooth, and she was drowned. The man called the authorities in due time. They pulled her bloated corpse out of the water.
He went home and couldn't sleep that night because, great liberal champion that he was, he found himself asking, "Why did I do nothing to help that girl in trouble? Was it fear of the water?" No, he had learned to swim years before. Did he feel incompetent to rescue her?
It's one thing to swim; it's another thing to be a lifesaver. No, he realized that he had even trained in lifesaving as a young man. Why had he done nothing? he asked himself. The answer he discovered was a deeply disturbing one.
He realized he had done nothing in that moment because there wasn't a crowd to witness his actions. There wasn't a television camera to take what he was doing out to all of the country.
He had allowed himself to get to the place where it was only humanity that he cared about, not individual human beings. He no longer saw the trees, he only saw the forest.
Claypool concluded, “This is a temptation that those of us who live in the city are very vulnerable to. There's so many of us, and we're so crowded together, that it can get to the place where a single person is simply not worth our disturbing ourselves to do something.”