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Oct. 29 2009 - 9:16 am | 52 views | 1 recommendation | 5 comments

California and Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese

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If you’ve taken note of the horrific story out of California, where a 15-year-old girl was gang raped for over two hours outside her high school’s homecoming dance, you may be reminded of the story of Kitty Genovese.

Genovese, for those unfamiliar with the story, was a Queens woman raped and stabbed to death outside her home in 1964; neighbors heard her screams but did nothing to help her and were slow to call the police. The story is a classic case in the social psychology literature. While traditional views of the case have been challenged in recent years — indicating that fewer people might have witnessed the crime and that a lot of the contemporary reporting on it might have been shoddy — it remains a parable for the ideas of the “bystander effect” and “diffusion of responsibility.”

Both of these effects seem to have been in full force in the case of the girl in Richmond, California. Early reports indicate as many as 10 people might have been actively involved in the rape and assault; as many as another 10 people might have stood by and watched, doing nothing to help the girl or to rouse authorities. The girl was only found well after the assault was over; no one called police until someone overheard people talking about the assault later — “reminiscing,” in the words of the CNN story linked above.

With what we know about the case at this point being so preliminary — early reporting on such things, after all, tends to give us a blurry picture — it’s not worth speculating too much further about exactly what happened. Suffice it to say, though, that it probably shares a lot in common, in terms of the group psychology in action, with the case of Derrion Albert (the boy killed in the gang incident in Chicago), which I wrote about here.

There, I wrote about how, while the popular image of crowds as combustible murder and mayhem machines is definitely oversimplified, that doesn’t change the fact that people are disinhibited in their behavior by a deindividuation effect and that a bystander effect makes it less likely that anyone will intervene on behalf of a victim when there are other witnesses present. When crowds come to have a shared identity with a positive goal (say, the Iranian election protesters or passengers trapped together in a plane stuck on the runway), they can behave rather well. Even then, though, there’s a switch from an individual to a social identity. When that social identity turns darker — you’re a member of a gang, say, or a group of concentration-camp guards — it frees the individual psychologically from complete moral responsibility for his or her actions.

Any one of the attackers in this case might have raped this girl on their own. But everyone in that crowd was more likely to act atrociously because of the simple fact of being in a crowd. That said, we know that even a small number of people exercising a moderating influence can defuse crowd violence — but no one stepped up here.

The question that strikes people, I think — aside from “how could this have been stopped?” — is what should be done with the people who watched and did nothing. The law on this in California appears to be clear. A 1999 California law makes it illegal not to report a witnessed crime against a child, but the law applies only to children 14 and under. “We do not have the ability to arrest people who witnessed the crime and did nothing,” a police lieutenant in the case told the press. “The law can be very rigid. We don’t have the authority to make an arrest.”

But should such a bystander law be limited to crimes against the youngest minors? How do you differentiate, legally, between someone who stood five feet away gawking (practically a participant), someone who maybe heard a noise in the distance and didn’t exercise an abundance of caution, and anyone in between? As a moral matter, I think most of us would like to see the gawker fry. As a legal matter, I’m not so sure how you distinguish between the latter two categories in a consistent and just way. Where do you draw the line?


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  1. collapse expand

    Is there a good reason that the “bystanders” would not be charged as accessories? It’s to my understanding to be an accessory one must have, in some way, aided or abetted a crime. Isn’t there an argument to be made that it’s aiding a crime if you don’t put a stop to it or call in the authorities who will put a stop to it?

  2. collapse expand

    From a normal stand point, it would be easy to tell the difference between someone who stood there and watched the girl get raped and someone who walked by 20 yards away and ignored an indistinct sound. I hate to say common sense, but I think an argument for it can be made here.
    Legally, you’d probably need more than that though. I know here in Louisiana, the legislators micro manage everything. If it’s not explicitly covered in a law, the wriggle room is there for a decent lawyer. No case law, no room for judicial interpretation. Hurray for Napoleonic law huh?
    Regarding Sometimesella’s comment, depending on how the law regarding principals and accessories is written in California, you could probably stretch a case, but I doubt you would get far. Most are written extremely specifically. Couple this with the fact that there already is a law on the books addressing this issue, though only in the case of minors, and the door is left open to get out of the charge. My biggest question would be what spurred California lawmakers to pass a law about witnessing a crime against a minor, and why did they restrict it just to minors? I’m sure there is some political/legal reason they did it, just as I’m sure that they will probably change their law shortly to cover situations like this. Too bad it will be too late to punish the monsters in this incident.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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