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No One Helped — Or Did They?

By Stephen Shenfield January 22, 2022 at 10:25 pm No Comments 2 Min Read

It is a truism of moralists that when bad things are done to people it is not only the perpetrators who are to blame but also the bystanders – those wretches who watch and do nothing.

A shocking example of such callousness and passivity was reported by The New York Times on March 27, 1964. Two weeks earlier, according to the report, a young woman had been murdered in the middle of the night in Kew Gardens, a neighborhood of Queens in New York City. For over half an hour, 38 neighbors had peered through their windows as the killer stalked and stabbed her. Despite her cries and screams, no one came to her aid. No one even called the police.

Ten years later, an amateur historian named Joseph DeMay moved into the neighborhood and decided to investigate what had really happened that night.

He found that 38 neighbors had indeed been questioned by the police. That was where the suspiciously exact figure of 38 came from. But only two of the 38 had seen the stabbing and only one of those two could reasonably be accused of ‘watching and doing nothing.’ Some of the 38 had not woken up at all. Others had heard something, looked out, and seen a woman lurching down the street, but assumed she was drunk. There was a bar up the street and drunkards were not an unusual sight. 

Two residents, in fact, had called the police. The police hadn’t come. DeMay was unable to find out why not. A third resident, the second of the two eyewitnesses, had wanted the police to come, but was afraid of drawing their attention to himself because he was gay (homosexuality being still illegal at the time). However, he did alert the people next door and one of those ran out, found the victim, and was able to comfort her as she lay dying. 

The article in The New York Times set off a storm of publicity. Dozens of residents were interviewed by journalists but complained afterward that the press had twisted their words. One journalist concluded that the published account was mostly untrue, but kept this knowledge to himself out of fear of losing his job. 

The corporate media systematically portray ordinary people as worse than we really are – as more competitive, more aggressive, more selfish, less willing to cooperate and help others. That helps to explain why most of us continue to think that socialism is impossible because, after all, ‘you can’t change human nature.’

Source: Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History (Little, Brown & Co., 2021), Ch. 9 (The Death of Catherine Susan Genovese)

Written By

I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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