Kitty Genovese Dies Again

I never watched Glenn Beck on C.N.N. before, but I tuned in last night. He’s kind of like a car crash — you can’t stop staring. He was going on pompously about a horrifying crime in Minnesota. A woman was beaten and raped in an apartment hallway for hours, and no one who heard her screams came to help, or even picked up the phone to call the police.

Glenn Beck’s opinion was that the people who lived in the apartment, Somali immigrants, need to get Americanized, so they can give up their refugee ways and learn to do the right thing. Political correctness is to blame for letting them keep their culture. Immigrants should learn to help one another, as Americans do.

My reaction, when I heard about the crime, was ‘Oh no, not again.’

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in the hallway of her New York City apartment building. Her neighbors heard her fighting for her life, screaming for help. One turned his tv up loud to drown out the noise. One said, ‘I didn’t want to get involved.’ That was Kitty Genovese’s epitaph. Murdered by a violent attacker and the indifference of her neighbors.

Why had so many people stood by and done nothing while an innocent person was killed before their eyes? ‘Seldom has The Times published a more horrifying story 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,’ The Times wrote in an editorial on March 28. It seemed to be too much for everyone to digest, though psychologists had several theories to explain the depressing conduct of the people in Kew Gardens.

People were sick about it. We wondered how we had come to this. What kind of people were New Yorkers? Were they like other Americans? What flaw in human nature lets people keep their heads down, waiting for someone else to take action? It’s an ugly phenomenon, that sheep-like passivity that causes decent-enough people to become complicit in an atrocity. But if any of us searches our soul, we will acknowledge a time when we should have done something, but didn’t.

There were a number of social psychology experiments that were widely discussed in the decade of Kitty Genovese’s murder. Dr. Stanley Milgram induced college students to follow orders, even when they thought they were torturing experimental subjects with electric shocks. Milgram had a sadistic imagination. Some of the students who were conned into ‘torturing’ Milgram’s confederates were so shaken in their sense of themselves that they needed counseling. Another experiment had students taking a test in a room that was slowly filling up with smoke. People sitting at the other desks (who were playing a role for the researchers) seemed to ignore the smoke, and the student subjects, confused and uncomfortable as they were, went along with the group and sat filling out papers as smoke poured from the air vents.

Last week on my street a police officer pulled a toddler and a woman from a crashed SUV just before it caught fire. We love these stories, we would all want to be like that policeman if we saw someone in trouble. Heroic courage is admirable, but not all that rare. It’s one of the good things in human nature.

Human nature also has its perverse side. The group-think that lets us get by every day, that keeps us out of trouble, can lead us into degradation. If we never make trouble, how will we cope when trouble comes to us? If we ignore a cry for help, who will be there for us in our hour of need?