Eighteen years ago, one of the most notorious examples of the alienation of modern life occurred in a nice neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. Kitty Genovese was stabbed three times and killed in sight of 38 neighbors, who heard her screams, but ignored them because they did not wish to get involved.
About a month ago, a not-so-sensational, but still startling reminder that the alienation of modern life goes on occurred in a nice neighborhood in Washington. The victim is alive, though not well. She was not stabbed, but she was raped.
The common denominator between the Genovese case and this story is that several persons also ignored this young woman's cries for help.
A recent midnight in Washington: The night had but a sliver of moon, and it was freezing cold. It was not a good time to be transferring from one bus to another, even in a pretty nice neighborhood on the fringe of Capitol Hill, but many people do not have a choice. They must work, they must travel the city, they must live.
So it was with the 19-year-old woman making her way home this dark night.
Women know in these troubled times to move with care, and so she did. But the young man with the knife spotted her first. Her persuaded her to follow him--or be stabbed. She was forced to accompany him to the back of the snow-covered playground of a school. Despite near-zero temperatures, the man ordered her to strip before raping her at knifepoint. After the attack, he walked off with her clothes and money.
The woman managed to find something to partially cover her body and then sought help. She managed to stop a cab, but the driver said he would not assist her unless she had money. She didn't. She told the passengers in the back seat what had happened. Neither of them offered to assist. The cab drove off.
As the moments passed, she next spotted a light in a front window of a house and knocked on the door. A man answered. She begged him to allow her to enter, telling him she had been raped and was freezing. He told her to call the police, but refused to open the door.
Finally, the woman made her way to a public phone on the street, dialed the operator, asked her to reverse the charges and called her sister to come and help her. By now it was nearly 2 a.m. The operator directed the call to the Sex Squad of the D.C. police department and Det. Joanne Hammet got on the case. Police said the young woman told them she had not intended even to inform police of the rape.
In her investigation, Det. Hammett traced the frantic steps of the young woman. She encountered the flip side of the "I don't want to get involved" coin. No one wanted to cooperate with the police. No one offered any information. No one wanted to get involved.
Many people in the city complain of being attacked while neighbors watch without calling police or helping. People don't respond because of the hassle--they don't want to become involved in the entanglements of the legal process. Many minorities, in addition, have suspicions about police.
These kinds of incidents illustrate how far we have still to go to become a caring community. What it suggests is that we must begin a new discussion: how will we face these difficult days?
One wrong answer to the question is the notion of encouraging women to learn to use guns to protect themselves from burglars or muggers. We won't become a less dangerous society if everyone keeps a rifle, a machete and a couple of handguns beside their beds.
Intelligent community-based crime prevention initiatives such as neighborhood watch groups that successfully organize to reduce crime and stimulate more effective police action are one answer. Even neighborhood-level proposals such as alternative sentencing to help the nonviolent criminals can help.
Whatever the hassles, we can't fail to respond because we are afraid. We cannot turn a deaf ear to another person's screams because to respond is too much trouble. We must get involved