Today marks the 48th anniversary of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese’s tragic death.
On March 13, 1964, she “was raped and killed in two separate late-night attacks near her home in Kew Gardens, Queens. Police found that at least 38 people had seen the attacks or heard Genovese scream, but no one intervened and just one woman called the police,” according to the New York Times.
Media reports from the incident indicate more harrowing details:
From the Times: “Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”
More reports eventually revealed that neighbors’ alleged apathy was over-stated: A lot of them didn’t call the cops because they just didn’t know what was happening.
At the time, however, Genovese’s death attracted national attention because the lack of intervention became “an all-consuming metaphor for the ills of contemporary urban life.”
You might have also heard of “Genovese syndrome.”
That’s a way that social psychologists refer to the “bystander effect.”
As Psychology Today puts it: “When a person needs help, many observers simply stand idly by and don’t assist the victim. Often, the more observers, the less helping because of what’s known as ‘the diffusion of responsibility.’ (‘Someone else will help.’ ‘It’s not my responsibility.’)”
As the article points out, this can explain actions from workplace bullying to more severe behavior — like not helping somebody escape danger.
The Holocaust is the best historic example, of course.
Several individual cases in recent years such as the 2009 Richmond High School gang rape incident — in which some 20 people saw a 15-year-old girl getting beaten and assaulted for hours and did nothing to intervene and the Ilan Halimi murder — emphasize that we must remember and learn from Kitty’s death.
And let’s also not forget Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, the heroic 31-year-old homeless man who was stabbed to death trying to intervene in a fight. Some 25 people walked by as he bled out on a Queens sidewalk.
More from the Times:
One man bent down to the sidewalk to shake the man, lifting him to reveal a pool of blood before walking away. Two men appeared to have a conversation about the situation, one pausing to take a photo of the body before departing. But the rest merely turned their heads toward the body, revealing some curiosity as they hurried along.
Fact is, we have all probably been bystanders of lesser crimes at some point in our lives.
But we don’t have to be, and we should look to the Genovese anniversary as an example of the potentially disastrous consequences of doing so.