A Kitty Genovese Moment

1 June 2011


The City by the Bay

Reveals an Unsavory Aspect

The murder of Kitty Genovese during the early hours of the morning of 13 March 1964 prompted much national reflection. The circumstances of the case are not such as to place human nature in the best light. While most people have heard of the Kitty Genovese murder case, the gruesome details are not as well known. What is well known is that even though she screamed for help and neighbors heard, no one came to her aid. What is less well known is that her attacker left the scene after initially stabbing her, only to come back ten minutes later to complete the murder.

Recent research has sought to exculpate her neighbors, and claims have been made that the circumstances were not as they have commonly been presented, but the shock of the case remains. The Kitty Genovese case remains shocking to this day. It exemplifies every unwelcome stereotype of urban indifference and hard-heartedness. Whenever an incident of this kind occurs people ask once again if the conditions of urban life are intrinsically dehumanizing.

A different form of exculpation began to emerge later, when social psychologists formulated the explanation of “diffusion of responsibility.” I am not suggesting that diffusion of responsibility is illusory or an inaccurate description of matters of fact; but what I am suggesting that it says nothing about the moral fact that, when help was most needed, none was offered. This social psychology explanation is “correct” in so far as it goes, but it does not address the existential question of urban dehumanization.

While the setting and the circumstances are different, another shocking Kitty Genovese moment has occurred. Zachary Roth has written in The Lookout blog in ‘Handcuffed by policy,’ fire and police crews watch man drown, that a man walked into the waters of San Francisco Bay until the water was up to his neck, and, as 75 people looked on, he drowned in full view of the spectators.

The title of the article refers to the emergency rescue workers and their failure to intervene. I do not mean to single them out. All present who looked on and did nothing are culpable. Again, as with Kitty Genovese, when help was most needed, none was forthcoming. Obviously, the man was distraught and sought his own death. This is a very different case than a woman being murdered and no one attempting to help. But we know that individuals who attempt suicide often respond to intervention, and their lives are often saved. It probably would have required no more than someone jumping into the water and swimming out to him to change his mind. But no one did.

While I do not single out the rescue workers for blame, it is nothing short of inconceivable to me that excuses have been made on their behalf, and excuses moreover that smell of political maneuvering. The above-mentioned blog post included the following:

“Mike D’Orazi of the Alameda Fire Department said that, due to 2009 budget cuts, his crews lacked the training and gear to enter the water. And a Coast Guard boat couldn’t access the area because the water was too shallow.”

I can’t imagine anyone in public service of any kind having such a tin ear for compassion that they would not understand that it is more damning to make excuses of this kind that to merely acknowledge that the man was not saved. No one is going to believe that, if the budget cuts had not happened, that the man would have been rescued. If Mr. D’Orazi is not dismissed, he certainly should be.

We on the West coast can no longer smugly make remarks about the anonymity of large East coast cities where incidents like the Kitty Genovese case happen, with the implication that they can’t happen here. San Francisco is legendary as a counter-culture mecca and represents the West as well as any city on the Pacific coast. It can happen here, and it has happened here.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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