“Of course I heard the screams,” one woman told the Long Island Star-Journal. “But there was nothing I could do. I was afraid…”
“That was none of my business. I attend to my own affairs.”
“At one point I thought maybe a girl was being raped – but if she was out alone at that hour, it served her right.”
In 1964 a young woman in a middle-class neighborhood in New York named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in public and no one helped her, or even called the police until thirty minutes later. Her case is used to illustrate a disturbing tendency humans have to do nothing when others are present, on the theory that someone else might do something, so the individual is not responsible.
How does this mesh with that other human tendency toward heroism, risking personal safety to save complete strangers? The difference seems to be that the heroic individual recognizes that they are personally morally responsible, while the crowd shrugs this responsibility off onto everyone else-diffusion of responsibility, i.e. if everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.
Diffusion of responsibility is why decent people employed by Enron, for example, could defraud their fellow citizens with scarcely a twinge of conscience, why decent young German farmhands could beat concentration camp “slackers,” why men in fine suits can impose genocidal austerity measures on whole populations, why Israeli Defense Force soldiers can herd Palestinians into a warehouse to be bombed. They are ‘following orders,” “If I don’t do it, someone else will,” “It is necessary to achieve a higher good.”
I study these people intensely, perhaps for fear that when it came down to brass tacks, I also would be an abject moral failure. I see glimmers of hope: a political aide asking himself, “Wait, is this even legal?” (1) German citizens questioning the burning of a synagogue (2) IDF soldiers agonizing about their commander luring Palestinian children close in order to shoot off their legs. (3)
These people are not uniquely evil and the people in New York were not uniquely heartless. These people are just like us. We cannot make their moral choices for them, we can only make our own moral choices and one of those moral choices may be to shout down the excuses rising like a reeking vapor from the diffusion of responsibility pit.
What can we do? We can stand up for what we know is right. We can insist on telling the truth. We can contact our representatives, we can volunteer at a local charity, we can gather a little bag of toothpaste, shampoo, soap, and deodorant and give that little bag to the local homeless shelter or juvenile detention center.
There IS something you can do, it IS your business and the victims are not to blame, the perpetrators are.
“People think it’s hard to do the right thing. It’s not hard to do the right thing. It’s hard to know what the right thing is. But once you know what the right thing is, it’s hard not to do it.” Harry Fertig (Ben Kingsley in The Confession)