Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Death of a Good Samaritan

The theme of big-city indifference to the Good Samaritan narrative is back with the story of a stabbed man left dying and bleeding by New York City residents for more than an hour before anyone tried to help.

Decades after 38 witnesses failed to call police in the now-legendary killing of Kitty Genovese in 1964, the death of a Guatemalan immigrant a week ago while trying to help a woman being attacked in the same borough of Queens reawakens debate about urban apathy in the face of violence.

In the decades between, after all the Charles Bronson "Death Wish" vigilante movies, little seems to have changed, except for the technology available to record what happened.

Instead of interviewing neighbors who failed to intervene, reporters now have a surveillance tape showing a man shaking the victim to see a pool of blood before walking away, two others conversing about him and taking a photo before leaving and others glancing at the body as they went by.

The Genovese case led to soul-searching about coarsening of sensibilities, the fear of getting involved in random violence and ambiguity about knowing what's happening in hurried, crowded city life, with social psychologists attempting to debunk what is now called "the bystander effect."

In its story about the death of Hugo Alfredo Yale-Tax, the New York Times notes: "Perhaps the passers-by thought he was just drunk. Perhaps they were illegal immigrants themselves, too nervous to contact the authorities. Or perhaps they had just learned a lesson that Mr. Tale-Yax so clearly had not: better to keep to oneself than to risk the trouble that comes from extending a helping hand."

Forty-six years ago, the paper's report on the Kitty Genevose case was more dramatic:

"For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

"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."

In the intervening years, there have been books, movies and songs about the case, but we are left with the same helpless sadness now as we were then.

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