Tuesday, May 7, 2013

THE STRANGERS NEXT DOOR



SERIOUS QUESTIONS EASILY, IF UNCOMFORTABLY, ANSWERED
“DIFFUSION OF RESPONSIBILITY” AT WORK?
Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight at the age they were abducted


(Tuesday May 7, 2013 Cleveland, OH)  When three young women and a small child were rescued from what was at least a decade of imprisonment by three brothers, it was presented in the media as an unusually happy ending to a sadly familiar story.  And that it was.  However, the facts of the case and the sheer length of the forced imprisonment beg questions that might make some a little uncomfortable.  Surely, one might say, if three young women and a child were being held in captivity by “my” neighbors, I would certainly have known and done something about it.  Yes, one could say that and believe it to be the absolute truth.  Yet too often in our self-absorbed personal isolationist society we have seen that not borne out in reality.

In just the last five years we have seen numerous reports of newborns left in dumpsters, children found chained to radiators, miserably abused by those responsible for their care be they parents, foster parents or other guardians.  Besides the cases that break through into the national media there are untold local stories of such depravity and inhumanity being perpetrated  not in secluded habitats where the screams of the abducted, tortured, tormented and often murdered, are far from being heard but rather right in apartments and houses in densely populated cities and suburbs.  These stories shock and sicken us as well they should but they stand as ugly statements of how we live our lives and how effective the blinders of “minding my business” can be. 

In ways subtle and overt we are extraordinarily connected with each other technologically and conversely ensconced in our own ear-bud provided atmospheric bubble that shuts out the rest of the world and seems to be alienating us from each other at a pace never dreamed possible just a decade ago, just when a 20 year old woman and two high school students suddenly vanished from the streets of this gritty down on its luck Rustbelt city.  There was a time when such disconnectedness was alleged to be the life style of the big city dwellers.  People who lived in the suburbs, exurbs and especially the rural areas of the country could read the paper telling of some urban horror that went unnoticed, some cry for help that fell on unhearing ears, some sounds and smells emanating from the neighbor upstairs that no one felt compelled to report to their local authorities, and think themselves to be superior; they, surely, would have known something was amiss because “we know our neighbors”.  That is simply no longer the case, if it ever really was.

KITTY FROM QUEENS & THE ‘GENOVESE SYNDROME’

Part enduring urban myth, part tragic tale of benign indifference, the death of a young woman from Kew Gardens, Queens, New York City on March 13, 1964 came to define what social psychologists call the “diffusion of responsibility”.  Ms. Genovese was brutally attacked by a knife-wielding sex predator after parking her car across the street from her apartment at 2 o’clock in the morning.  Kitty screamed as her attacker followed her, continuing to stab her even as dozens of neighbors heard her cries in the night.  Neighbors turned on their lights, some yelled at the window at Kitty and her attacker not realizing what they were witnessing was a murder in progress not a lover’s quarrel.  The first call to the NYPD was received many minutes after neighbors first were awakened by Kitty’s pleas for mercy.  It was in the aftermath of this event that struck at the heart of the quiet Queens neighborhood and the City at large that the Police were able to determine the sequence of events.  Headlines told of dozens of Kew Gardens residents who heard screams and did not call the Police. 

The sad story of Kitty Genovese came to be one of the first reported cases of “The Bystander Effect” also known as “The Genovese Syndrome”.  Virtually all the residents of that neighborhood who spoke to NYPD Detectives in the days after Kitty’s death commented that they did not phone the Police because they thought someone already had.  Some of those interviewed simply stated they felt that the commotion out in the street below was “none of my business” and that they “did not want to get involved”. 

ONE MAN’S CEILING IS ANOTHER MAN’S FLOOR

City dwellers value their privacy because it is in short supply and have always respected their neighbors’ right to privacy.  Prior to greater public awareness of domestic and child abuse, proximity was no reason to breech the unwritten code of city living.  One could hear through the party wall at night a neighbor arguing and beating his wife but it was never spoken of in the light of day.  This characteristic of urbanites came to be an element of the stereotypical portrayal that non-urbanites used to define the rude, uncaring, cold and calloused denizens of the big city.  The ability to mind one’s business, to not get involved with whatever they heard going on around them was deeply rooted in the patriarchal tenet that a man is “king in his castle”; what transpired behind closed doors was no one else’s concern and that there was no excuse for the “airing of dirty laundry” outside the confines of the family apartment.

It was well into the 1980’s before there were any concerted efforts by legislators and the Law Enforcement Community (LEC) to empower neighbors to get involved, for bystanders to intervene.  It is commonplace - actually mandatory -  today for doctors and nurses in Emergency Rooms to make certain inquiries when a child is brought in with certain types of injuries that are suggestive of or consistent with physical abuse.  This was certainly not the case in the 1950’s and the days when even professionals including Law Enforcement Officers (LEO) were reluctant to “get involved”. 

It took a paradigm shift of epic proportions before matters would change and allow for “outsiders” to intervene in cases of domestic and child abuse.  In 186 Connecticut enacted the “Tracey Thurman Law” which made an arrest mandatory when Police were called to a domestic disturbance and there was obvious evidence that abuse had occurred.  This removed the onus from the often terrified battered woman in the household who had been so brutally conditioned into submission after enduring violence for years.  Other states quickly followed suit.

The tragic abductions and murders of two little girls resulted in laws that carry their names.  Polly’s Law, named after Polly Klaas from California who was kidnapped from her bed in the middle of the night and subsequently murdered by a known, previously convicted sexual predator.  The nationwide “AMBER Alert” system named after 9 year old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted in Arlington, Texas in 1996, is designed to enlist a broad range of resources including the general public in locating missing children as soon after they disappear as possible.  While these important laws may seem a bit tangential to the Cleveland story they are part of an enhanced and more sophisticated arsenal at the disposal of the legal and law enforcement network actively employed today; they are tools that were unavailable until relatively recently.

AN ERIE FEELING

The Castro Brothers


The details of what the three abductees held captive by three brothers in this city that hugs the shore of Lake Erie will no doubt slowly emerge in the coming days.  Already there are claims that the authorities had been called to that house of horrors over the years but there was “insufficient” cause for further investigation.  Some neighbors on the block are now coming forward with tales of seeing a woman chained up in the backyard of the going to seed house where the women were held captive.  It may take some time before the entire story is revealed but at least, in this case, a moment of opportunity and a few neighbors willing to get involved literally freed the horrifically enslaved victims of these sadistic perpetrators.

Actually the neighbor who first approached the house when he heard a woman screaming for help, Charles Ramsey, has already received the type of media attention we have come to expect in our hyper-wired world.  He is being hailed as a hero because he chose to get involved and it was his willingness to do so, to do what we would all like to believe is common sense and the sort of thing we would have done in that situation, that has differentiated him as having acted “heroically”.  It is a powerful yet disturbing statement on our society when a man can be called a hero for doing what should come naturally to all of us; he reacted to a situation and quickly and decisively acted.  Had he not, those 3 women and that child may still be in captivity of the most depraved nature.

Too often we are content to “play it safe” and are comfortable in the role of the bystander.  As Jeffrey Dammer was seducing and abducting young homosexual men from the streets of Milwaukee in the early 1900’s, taking them home for sex and to cannibalize, his neighbors had lived with strange sounds and rancid odors emanating from his apartment for months.  No one called the Police.  John Wayne Gacey had the bodies of over 30 young boys buried beneath his suburban Chicago home and allegedly his neighbors were blithely unaware.  A house of horrors is discovered in Philadelphia only after a utility company meter reader became suspicious about the goings on in that dilapidated row house where over 22 young foster children were chained to the floors and being systematically tortured and starved.  The neighbors never thought it was unusual that they had seen children going into that house but never coming out.  No one ever called the Police.  This is just a fraction of what is seemingly an infinite list of similar crimes that all share the common denominator of having bystander neighbors living next door to utter madness.

SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING

Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001 we have become a heavily surveilled country.  In public we are virtually always within range of a closed circuit TV camera, a security monitor or some other hi-tech tracking device.  Thousands of hours of footage is collected across the country daily by all manner of authorities.  Some have argued, and rightfully so, that our loss of privacy represents an erosion of our Constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of movement, expression and assembly.  That may be so. But our security seems to trump our privacy concerns at least in the eyes of federal courts across the land.

In New York City, one of the most monitored cities on the planet, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has also introduced and implemented a campaign to engage the public called “See something, say something.”  This is intended to constantly remind New Yorkers that if they see an unattended package on the subway, a “suspicious” person loitering around a landmark, or anything out of the ordinary in the familiar landscape of their daily commute and neighborhood where they live, to contact the Police.  The recent bombing at the Boston Marathon may very well have been averted in New York City since the public is acutely aware of noticing suspect items like the two backpacks the alleged bombers left near a mailbox and a storefront.

This “see something, say something” mentality should be discreetly exercised in other areas of concern besides terrorism.  There is a balance to be sure between intrusiveness and inquisitiveness; between callously ambivalent and cautiously alert.  As a society we have gotten better at taking action when we feel a situation warrants it.  There is no way to calculate how many potential abductions have been averted by the intervention of a passerby or an alert customer in the mall.  As parents and teachers today continually drill into our children’s heads the idea of not talking with strangers, not going anywhere with someone they do not know, of being instructed to scream as loud as they can if they are being taken, abductions still occur with an alarming frequency and the majority of them remain as unsolved cases for years on end just as had the abductions of the three young Cleveland girls until yesterday.

The surprising events of yesterday have offered some degree of renewed hope for the parents of the missing, relatives of the children we see on billboards in Walmart and in other locales.  There are predators of every twisted ilk living and preying among us, next door to us, maybe down the street.  As we have seen time and time again these people do not have horns and breathe fire; they blend into their environment and even live amicably in close proximity to us.   

As the story of the last decade of captivity that the three young women here endured becomes more complete, there may be lessons learned.  There may also be revealed some missed opportunities, a few moments frozen in time that with all the certainty and clarity of hindsight emerge as telling.  There always are.  It is inevitable.  Some of the responses offered by neighbors in past instances such as this all too often portray the perpetrator as a “nice, quiet man” who “kept to himself”, was “helpful” to those very same neighbors who must go on a live with the knowledge that there was evil in their midst for years and years and they do not know.  Or, perhaps, did not want to know.

Kitty Genovese screamed and begged for her life on a dark Queens New York street 49 years ago and is forever remembered  as a victim not only of her vicious attacker but also of her indifferent neighbors who all thought someone else was calling the Police.  They were wrong.


TAGS:  AMANDA BERRY, MICHELLE KNIGHT, GINA DEJESUS, CLEVELAND ABDUCTIONS, DECADE OF CAPTIVITY, CASTRO BROTHERS, CHARLES RAMSEY, KITTY GENOVESE, POLLY KLAAS, AMBER HAGERMAN, TRACEY THURMAN, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE LAWS, “DIFFUSION OF RESPONSIBILITY”, PRIVACY, SAFETY, AWARENESS





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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

As always very well written and thought out article. Sometimes it takes reading an article like this for us to think about things we don't normally think about. Thanks BC.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you wrote about Kitty Genovese. I will never forget her story.