Earlier this week, the New York Parole Board denied Winston Moseley his freedom yet again, and thank god: he was the man who brutally stabbed, raped and killed Kitty Genovese in 1964. As most of you know, 38 people in Queens, NY witnessed at least some of the crime and none of them did a single thing about it. I studied the event in college for a psych thesis, but I hadn’t known all the details until now.
Read this article about the incident, but be prepared – this crime was methodical, savage and unbelievably grim even by today’s standards. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, and the face of that pretty 28-year-old Italian girl will haunt you for a long time.
Kitty’s murder went unnoticed for two weeks, when a Times columnist wrote a disgusted treatise asking how thirty-eight people could possibly have watched it happen. It’s so grisly: Moseley stabbed Kitty at her doorstep, then left when he thought he’d been seen. Kitty staggered to the back of her apartment building, and the killer came back, stabbing her again. Spooked by noise, Moseley left and CAME BACK AGAIN to rape and kill her. Three goddamn times he came for her, and the slightest action by any bystander would have saved her life. It’s sickening, even now.
I had a sociology teacher who once said that America did not lose its innocence at Pearl Harbor, nor with the JFK assassination. It happened that night with Kitty Genovese. Strong words, and entire schools of thought were developed to explain why we could be so cruel.
Of course, New York City bore the brunt of it, as it just confirmed what the rest of America already thought: NYC was a trove of uncaring, brutal animals. When the so-called “bystander effect” was noticed even in small towns, it wasn’t so easy to blame those frickin’ New Yorkers anymore.
My social psych prof at UNC, Bibb Latané, was one of the first to give the Genovese Syndrome a real name: the Theory of Social Impact, which states (roughly) that the more people there are in any given situation, the less likely any one of them is going to act.
This theory had so many outlets it was ridiculous. Among them:
– Look at a giant choir singing. Due to the theory of social impact, 10% of them are just mouthing the words. Not only that, but they don’t even know they’re not singing.
– Basketball has a historic 76% home court advantage; football has only 51%.
– The researchers stuck five McDonald’s gift certificates on an elevator wall. When eight people got into the elevator, none of them took the certificates. When ONE person got in, he/she took them ALL.
Add to this the recent book by UNC’s own James Surowiecki, which states that well-informed, diverse crowds make better decisions than individual experts (a book I mentioned here). Pretty weird. That means crowds make wonderful decisions in the theoretical, but catastrophic decisions in the particular.
Why does this stuff get me off? I guess because the definition of being an individual, of being alive, of being present, is to avoid being a victim of either theory. First off, do not consider yourself an expert on anything without giving massive credence to the sway of the spiritus mundi. Don’t be made complacent by the few things you get right.
Secondly, whether you’re in a crowd, or alone: ACT! This is one that has been a nightmare for me, because my first instinct is always to believe that I’M the one who doesn’t get it. But if you hear a kid screaming, feel like something’s wrong on the subway, or, god forbid, see a woman getting raped and stabbed, assume nothing and call the cops! That, and throw a tire iron at the bad guy. A clean shot at the skull can really mess up his plans.
Don’t become a voiceless sheep in the fact of Social Impact! Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, and sometimes a woman screaming bloody murder is actually bloody well being murdered.