Bystanders and Civilization

On the night of October 23rd, a 15-year-old girl in Richmond, California, was brutally assaulted by as many as seven young men between the ages of 15 and 20.

One policeman called the events of that night a “barbaric act” and “one of the most disturbing crimes in my 15 years as a police officer.”

What disturbed him wasn’t only the overt criminal acts but the response—or more precisely, the lack of a response—of those in a position to help.

According to the police, the victim had left a dance at Richmond High School and was in the school’s courtyard when she was gang-raped. As heinous as this crime was, what made it a national story was that approximately 20 kids witnessed the attack and did nothing. Nothing.

Actually, it was worse than that. As word spread about the attack, people came to check it out. There are reports that some of the bystanders took pictures of the assault with their cell phone cameras instead of calling for help. Others laughed and a few even joined in the attack.

No sooner had police found the victim, semi-conscious under a bench, than attention focused on the behavior of the crowd. Comparisons were made to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, in which her neighbors supposedly ignored her cries for help because they didn’t want to get involved.

While how many of Genovese’s neighbors actually heard her cries for help is in dispute, there are no such doubts in this case. function fbs_click() {u=location.href.substring(0,location.href.lastIndexOf(‘/’));t=document.title;‘’+encodeURIComponent(u)+’&t=’+encodeURIComponent(t),’sharer’,’toolbar=0,status=0,width=626,height=436′);return false;}

So why didn’t anyone do something to help? An obvious factor is fear. Richmond, California, has been described as “one of the nation’s most dangerous cities,” and its murder rate is higher than Oakland’s or Los Angeles’. The school even recently approved the use of surveillance cameras following a series of violent crimes on campus.

In this setting, people have reason to believe that authorities cannot protect them and, thus, getting involved will put them at risk.

Even so, many people live in dangerous neighborhoods where “snitching” is dangerous, but they don’t gather to watch another person being brutalized, much less take photos or laugh. After all, the attack ended when people down the street from the school learned what was happening and called the police.

The response that shocked the nation speaks to an indifference to the well-being of others among some of our children. Instead of empathy, these young people showed apathy—and, as one observer said, “a total indifference to [behavior], customs, mores, and sensibilities,” the things we associate with being civilized.

What happened in Richmond, California, is an unsettling reminder that the standards that make a good society possible cannot be taken for granted. It doesn’t take much to set them aside. That’s why those standards and the beliefs that make them possible must be taught and renewed continuously.

As one Oakland pastor wrote, what happened on October 23rd “is reflective of a societal breakdown that is not limited to the Richmond city limits.”

And that’s what should disturb us the most.

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  • mallys

    And, if it is entertaining to watch endless hours of virtual violence on movies, TV and video games, how much more entertaining must it be to actually be there — or to participate…

    It is beyond being desensitized, and far into being addicted.