Remembering Kitty Genovese

As horrific as the accounts were of the rape and ultimately fatal beating of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi last month, they were made worse in some ways by her male companion's depiction of what happened after the two of them were thrown off the bus. As reported in an Indian newspaper, when the rapists dumped the bleeding and naked bodies of their victims onto the roadside, they both waved and called to passersby, but no one stopped. "They slowed down, looked at our naked bodies and left," the man said. "My friend was grievously injured and bleeding profusely. Cars, [autorickshaws] and bikes slowed down and sped away. I kept waving for help. The ones who stopped stared at us, discussing what could have happened. Nobody did anything."

For Americans with long memories the entire incident has frightening echoes of the story of Kitty Genovese, the New York City woman who was stabbed to death near her home in the borough of Queens in 1964. I was in high school on Long Island at the time and followed the detailed accounts that appeared in newspapers, including one in the New York Times alleging that "38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks," without coming to her aid or even bothering to call the police. Years later, this article and others like it were shown to have been inaccurate: somebody had yelled at the attacker and he ran off, but returned later; someone else called the police but they arrived too late to save Ms. Genovese. Nonetheless, the story left me and many other New Yorkers with troubling questions. How would I react to a similar situation, especially one in which the actual level of danger -- to the possible victim or to myself for intervening -- were unclear?

Those accounts of human indifference, however exaggerated, must have also touched a deeper chord of truth. On some level we sensed that we were becoming more isolated from each other and needed to do more. It has been argued that all the media attention on the Genovese case helped lead to reform of the New York Police Department's telephone reporting system in the days before national 911 was implemented, and to the rise of Neighborhood Watch programs in some communities and large apartment buildings.

A more immediate and furious response seems to be sweeping the nation of India, including calls for changes in the law and the way police investigate rape and assault cases. There has been a petition for the suspension of lawmakers accused of crimes against women, which, as reported by the AP, could include as many as six state lawmakers facing rape prosecutions and two national parliamentarians charged with crimes against women that fall short of rape.

Unlike the Kitty Genovese story, the reports of bystander indifference in this case do not appear to be exaggerated, having been confirmed by the woman's companion who was also severely beaten (and apparently ignored by police and medical personnel as he lay in the hospital with his broken leg untreated for several days). In a Christmas Eve e-mail, Michael Moore cited one of the reasons for the high prevalence of gun violence in the U.S. as our relative lack of connectedness with each other compared to other industrial nations, perhaps the shadow side of our love of rugged individualism. India has its own convoluted history to deal with. A long tradition of veneration of the Mother Goddess in her many glorious manifestations, and of sexuality celebrated through the earliest teachings of Tantra and Yoga, not to mention the Kama Sutra and the monuments at Khajuraho, has apparently been turned into a cult of male privilege and a blame-the-victim contempt for women. Some trace this perversion of sexuality at least to mid-Victorian British colonial rule, preceded by hundreds of years of prior colonization, but similar attitudes still linger in our own country, as the many inane comments about rape by conservative candidates in the last election attest. Changing patterns of migration from country to city life afforded by rapid economic growth also apparently has played a role in the increase in violence against women.

I suspect that the outrage now sweeping both men and women in India is only the beginning of a long-overdue period of introspection and reform -- beginning with a new fast-track court that has been set up to handle crimes against women. If so, then we all owe a debt to this most recent victim, just as we do, going back nearly 50 years, to Kitty Genovese.

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