Thursday, March 13, 2014

An Unheeded Cry for Help

Fifty years ago today, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death a short distance from her home in Queens, N.Y.

By itself, that isn't too noteworthy, but there were unusual circumstances that made the case stand out, primarily the fact that more than three dozen of her neighbors apparently heard her screaming for help — but did nothing to assist the 5–foot–1, 105–pound woman.

Why? It was probably explained best in a simple comment one of the neighbors made to a New York Times reporter: "I didn't want to get involved."

The attack lasted roughly 30 minutes. The assailant apparently selected Genovese at random and was chased off twice after he started stabbing her — the first time when a neighbor shouted from his apartment window, "Hey, let that girl alone!" and the second time when other windows started opening and the attacker decided to go move his car — but returned twice, the last time to finish off the semiconscious victim, who had managed to get inside one of the buildings.

Her killer found her by following the trail of blood she left behind. He finished her off, then raped her corpse.

About 40–45 minutes after the attack began, one of the neighbors called the police — after first calling a friend for advice on what to do. The police arrived in a couple of minutes; in the course of their investigation, they found 38 witnesses who had heard or seen at least a portion of the attack.

He suggested the witnesses may have been confused by what they were seeing and hearing.

An investigator told the press that Genovese might have survived if the police had been summoned when the attack began; otherwise, there didn't seem to be anything too unusual about the murder at first. It received scant coverage in the newspapers, and little was said in the investigators' report.

"This tendency to shy away from reporting crimes is a common one," the deputy police commissioner said at the time — and, in fact, the case drew no special attention.

Until two weeks later, when the New York Times ran an article with the headline "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call."

The case was troubling for many people who wondered how civilized humans could stand by and do nothing while a young woman was being brutally murdered. Some offered the explanation that they thought it was a lovers' quarrel, and they didn't want to interfere.

One psychiatrist said the failure of the witnesses to act promptly may have been at least partly because of television. "We underestimate the damage that these accumulated images do to the brain," he said. "The immediate effect can be delusional, equivalent to a sort of post–hypnotic suggestion."

There were numerous theories offered to explain why no one did anything, but none was satisfactory. The Times, in a hand–wringing editorial, wondered why that was. "Seldom has The Times published a more horrifying story," the editorial said, "than its account of how 38 respectable, law–abiding, middle class Queens citizens watched a killer stalk his young woman victim ... without one of them making a call to the Police Department that might have saved her life."

Fear was a plausible reason, I suppose. The city of Boston, about 200 miles to the northeast of New York, had been gripped by the fear of the "Boston strangler" killings around that time. The thought of that may have intimidated some of the witnesses.

But, in the end, it was still hard to rationalize what had happened.

Folks are still trying to make sense of it. Karen Matthews writes for the Associated Press that the case still fascinates people half a century later.

"Kitty Genovese's screams for help couldn't save her on the night she was murdered outside her apartment in 1964," Matthews writes. "Fifty years later, those screams still echo, a symbol of urban breakdown and city dwellers' seeming callousness toward their neighbors."

There are those who, much like the folks who deny the Holocaust, argue that Genovese's murder was not quite what it has been made out to be. Some people, including author Kevin Cook who just published a book on the subject, take issue with various parts of the story, including the number of witnesses.

Some observe that Times metro editor A.M. Rosenthal had lunch with the city's police commissioner about 10 days after the murder, and the commissioner mentioned the case, prompting Rosenthal to send a reporter out to Queens to get a compelling story.

And the reporter came back with a compelling story.

The Genovese case was responsible, I think, for the designation "the bystander effect," a psychological phenomenon in which the more witnesses there are, the less likely people are to help an individual in distress. They conclude that someone else is sure to call the authorities, that such a call may already have been made.

In the long story of human history, I'm sure something similar must have happened before Genovese was slain, but, for whatever reason, it never caught the public's attention the way the Genovese case did.

If you want to find something good that came from the case, Matthews points out that "[i]t has been credited with spurring adoption of the 911 system in 1968 as well as 'Good Samaritan' laws that give legal protection to people who help those in trouble." And that is good.

The emergence of mobile technology makes it easier for people to reach out for assistance as well.

So I suppose the question is: Can a Genovese case happen in the 21st century?

And my answer is: I don't know. Modern technology might not make a difference. I gather that most, if not all, of Genovese's neighbors had access to telephones.

The "bystander effect" might still apply, anyway, whether the phones were mobile or landline.

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