Diffusion of Responsibility

On March 16, 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in Queens, New York. For people of a certain age it is a well-known story.

I don’t know anything about Kitty Genovese. I don’t know if she was kind or mean, a Madonna or a whore. I don’t know if she spent her days aiding the sick or stealing to support a drug habit.

I do know this: there were ways in which she was a good person and ways in which she was horrible. Just like you.

Each time her killer’s knife came down it cut through skin that had started out as a soft baby’s skin and had, over 28 years, became a somewhat tougher, world worn exterior. There were nerves connected to her skin so that each time the knife came down and tore a hole in Kitty Genovese it hurt, a lot.

It hurt a lot when then knife cut the stuff inside her — liver, intestines, stomach, whatever it hit. The organs have nerves and they all hurt like crazy when they are harshly ripped apart by sharpened metal. Blood filled her body and spurted on the ground through the holes in her veins, capillaries and skin.

Because it hurt, and because animals have an instinct for survival, Kitty Genovese screamed. Then she was dead from all the holes in her internal and external organs.

Here’s why her story was famous: the newspapers reported (admittedly, the facts have since been disputed) that lots of people, in their apartments, heard her screams and nobody helped or called the police. The attack, at least according to some, lasted a half hour.

It’s a pretty safe bet that none of the people who heard her howls would have wanted Kitty Genovese to be killed in a horrible, excruciating way. They were all, quite likely, good people who wished no bad fortune on anybody. But they had their own problems!

When something bad happens, a person is less likely to act the more people there are around. Psychologists call this the “diffusion of responsibility”. The Kitty Genovese story, accurate or not, is often used as an example of this phenomenon.

About.com describes it thus:

Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of those present.

The second reason is the need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate.

This is our national Kitty Genovese Moment.

Civilians are dying every day in Syria, from bombs and bullets and, now, poison gas. To be specific, the poison gas is called sarin.

James Hamblin described the effects of sarin in The Atlantic on May 6:

First, our smooth muscles and secretions go crazy. The nerves to those areas keep firing, keep telling them to go. The nose runs, the eyes cry, the mouth drools and vomits, and bowels and bladder evacuate themselves. It is not a dignified state.

Since sarin has no smell or taste, the person may very well have no idea what’s going on. Their chest tightens, vision blurs. If the exposure was great enough, that can progress to convulsions, paralysis, and death within 1 to 10 minutes.

You can see for yourself what the effects of sarin are on human beings, just by going to CNN.com. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.

There are lots of reasons to be concerned about the idea that the U.S. would shoot missiles into Syria. There could be retaliation, for instance there could be terrorist attacks in Western Europe, Israel or the USA. We’ve had them before, and they are horrible. Innocent people might die, maybe you or I will. We don’t know.

There is something we do know, however, because we know human nature, and because some of us have had to discipline children: if there are no consequences for bad actions those actions will happen again and again.

In the national debate on Syria the neo-isolationists of the Left and Right share the same attitude as the people who heard Kitty Genovese scream — we have lots of other things to worry about, we have hungry people and we have other wars and plus we might be dragged into the mess. We have our own problems!

We are a national example of the diffusion of responsibility, too, because it seems as though nobody else wants to help – not the U.N., not our alleged allies. That makes us feel it’s OK, psychologists say.

This mentality – that it’s not our problem – is neither a surprise or new when it comes to the right-wingers. There has always been a xenophobic America First mentality over there. Boy, has there ever – they even listened to Charles Lindbergh when he said to leave Hitler alone.

It’s probably not a surprise coming from many on the Left either – they have been permanently soured on military escapades since Viet Nam, something exacerbated by the lies that led is into Iraq. I’m usually on their side, truth told.

But unless you are prepared to call yourself a pacifist — to say there is never a reason for violence — this is different.

There are excuses, such as money should be spent elsewhere (a non-existent choice, it is not bombs or butter, it is bombs or nothing). There are anti-American Islamists and al Qaeda types in the Syrian opposition and they pretty much hate us.

But, really, there is only one issue, and it is whether we will let the world know that we will stop the slaughter of civilians. If we can save villages full of children — with little risk to our own troops — will we just watch those children be gassed? Will we continue to begin every excuse by saying how wrong Assad’s actions are?

If you shut your blinds to the screams of a murder victim outside your window, you would ever after wonder if your reasons for inaction were worth allowing a human being to be massacred. You would look into mirrors and feel guilty, because the responsibility wasn’t diffuse. You would know it had been yours.

Do we want to be asking ourselves why we did nothing while sarin was used on innocent people, why we didn’t respond to their screams for help?

And if we do nothing will we, as a nation, ever again be able to look in a mirror and believe we’re good people?

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