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Kitty Genovese

Fr. Frank Pavone, M.E.V.
National Director, Priests for Life

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It was 3:20am on the morning of March 13, 1964. Kitty Genovese, who managed a nearby bar, was just getting home from work when she was attacked while walking toward her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York. She screamed that she had been stabbed. Lights of nearby apartments went on, windows opened, the attacker disappeared, but nobody came to help.

Then the attacker returned, found his victim, and stabbed her again. She screamed, but nobody helped her or even called the police.

The attacker came back a third time. It was now a half-hour later. He attacked and stabbed Kitty Genovese yet again, this time fatally. At that point the police received their first call, and were there in two minutes – but they could not save her life.

In the days and weeks following this murder, detectives and reporters became furious as they discovered that no less than thirty-eight people witnessed this assault, but did nothing. It was an astonishing failure of human compassion, a stunning display of cowardice and apathy. In fact, it gave rise to debates among academics and research among psychologists about what came to be known as the “Genovese Syndrome.”

The witnesses were asked why they didn’t help. Many did not want to talk. Some thought for sure that someone else was closer to the victim and would do something. The single individual who did call the police – a half hour after the attacks began – only did so after much deliberation, and after having phoned a friend in Nassau County for advice, and then walked across the roof of the building to the apartment of an elderly woman in order to make the call. “I didn’t want to get involved,” this man told the police. Had the call come sooner, the police said, Kitty’s life could have been saved.

One of the experiments regarding the Genovese Syndrome began with a man sitting in a room alone. Not knowing the experiment had already begun, he saw smoke pouring into the room from under the door of the next room. He immediately got up and alerted others that there was a problem. Later, three people were placed in that same room, and smoke began pouring in. They coughed and fanned the smoke away from their faces, but nobody got up or said anything.

The experiment showed that we don’t just look at the evidence of an emergency. We look at the reactions of others. If they don’t get excited, we reinterpret the data and conclude that things aren’t as bad as they seem. The thirty-eight who witnessed Kitty’s murder reinforced each other in their non-response.

So it is with abortion. Individually, we see that it is an emergency crying out for a massive response. Smoke is pouring in; victims are screaming. Yet we don’t see the massive response of others, and so responding becomes harder for us.

And like one of those thirty-eight witnesses, when asked why they did not get involved, so many simply say, “I don’t know.”

 

Columns 2007

 

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