Takingthe subway home from school last September, Alison Benabe, 15, and her sister Jennifer were attacked by three teenage boys, two of them armed with knives. The New York Times, whence these facts are drawn, said the boys menaced the two girls and kicked Alison in the face. "Adults nearby silently looked the other way."
The story of Alison Benabe is both prosaic and momentous. In another era that sentence -- "Adults nearby silently looked the other way" -- would have produced indignation and a flood of questions: "Why? Don't they care? How could they be so callous?" For explanation, a canard might have sufficed: "That's New York for you." But no more.
Recall Kitty Genovese. In 1964 she was stabbed to death on a Queens, N.Y., street while 38 witnesses did nothing. They heard her screams. Windows were opened. Shades opened. The attack was long, brutal -- and yet no one even called the police. Countless imaginary voices admonished, "Don't get involved." Windows closed. Shades were drawn. Kitty Genovese, stabbed three times, died.
But afterward tough and supposedly heartless New York put itself through intensive therapy. How could it happen? Whatever New Yorkers and others made of the episode, there was agreement on this: it was extraordinary, not something that happens or could happen often. Everyone agreed on that.
Not anymore. In the new era, no one would be surprised to read that sentence in The Times: "Adults nearby silently looked the other way." Indeed, it would be surprising if anyone intervened -- unless it was someone who was armed. The years since 1964 have taught everyone a lesson: Mind your own business -- otherwise you could get killed.
Part of the problem is guns. Kids walk around armed like James Bond. The storied zip gun, wildly inaccurate, has gone the way of the zoot suit. Kids now carry weapons of warfare: machine pistols of stunning power. They know their names like they used to know ballplayers: TEC-9, MAC-10. And they can, of course, recite the statistics: weight, muzzle velocity, price -- both retail and street. These guns bring status to the owner. They have brought a low-grade panic to the street.
The year Kitty Genovese was killed, New York's murder rate was 6.1 per 100,000. In 1989 it was 22.7. Washington's record is even more alarming: from 8.4 in 1964 to 59.5 in 1988 and climbing. Back in 1964 your average murder was a domestic affair -- husbands, wives, lovers, and few of them (19 percent in 1960) involved guns. Now strangers kill strangers, and most often (66 percent last year in New York) guns were involved. Crimes of passion have become crimes of total dispassion.
But even apart from the guns -- the sheer number of them -- is the willingness to use them, to kill. Knives or guns, it matters not. The taking of a life is nothing. Cops are numbed by the cold cruelty of children. Each year, Washington careens from one homicide record to another, too much of it attributable to kids. In many other cities, the story is not much different. Sometimes the issue is drugs. Sometimes, though, it's a jacket or that intangible core of machismo, respect. The lack of it can be fatal.
In New York last August, a tourist from Utah was stabbed to death when he went to the aid of his parents on a subway station. They were being robbed. After the killing, the gang of youths used the money to buy tickets to a dance hall. That's where the cops found them. They were dancing.
New York paused and gagged. This was not a senseless crime, but one that made eminent sense. The kids needed money, and so they looked for someone to rob. They were not feeding a habit, looking for food -- nothing like that. They wanted to go dancing. One of their victims balked. He was killed. Did the kids panic? Did they run and hide? No. They went dancing.
Ponder that crime a minute, and you will realize how far we have come from the Kitty Genovese era. Oh, how quaint were the days when people were held morally culpable for not coming to the aid of an innocent victim. Now city dwellers are like people in Nazi-occupied Europe. The terror is so great that we tend to suspend moral judgment: Would we have done any differently? Notions of accountability, of what is owed others, no longer apply. In their place is the credo of the city dweller: Mind your own business.
Poor Alison Benabe, she's on her own. The greatest military and economic power on Earth can't keep a girl safe on the subway. Mindless policies have taken their toll. The lack of meaningful gun control is one. The inability or refusal to punish and punish swiftly is another. Homicide has become a childhood disease for which there is no inoculation.
"Adults silently looked the other way," The Times said. Of course. Why should they be different? When it comes to cities, this is what most of the country has been doing for years.