The Genovese Syndrome

It was 3:20 on the morning of March 13, 1964. Kitty Genovese, who managed a nearby bar, was just getting home from work when she was attacked while walking toward her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York. She screamed that she had been stabbed. Lights of nearby apartments went on, windows opened, the attacker disappeared, but nobody came to help. 

Then the attacker returned, found his victim, and stabbed her again. She screamed, but nobody helped her or even called the police. 

The attacker came back a third time. It was now a half-hour later. He attacked and stabbed Kitty Genovese yet again, this time fatally. At that point the police received their first call, and were there in two minutes — but they could not save her life. 

In the days and weeks following this murder, detectives and reporters became furious as they discovered that no less than thirty-eight people witnessed this assault, but did nothing. It was an astonishing failure of human compassion, a stunning display of cowardice and apathy. In fact, it gave rise to debates among academics and research among psychologists about what came to be known as the "Genovese Syndrome."

The witnesses were asked why they didn't help. Many did not want to talk. Some thought for sure that someone else was closer to the victim and would do something. The single individual who did call the police — a half hour after the attacks began — only did so after much deliberation, and after having phoned a friend in Nassau County for advice, and then walked across the roof of the building to the apartment of an elderly woman in order to make the call. "I didn't want to get involved," this man told the police. Had the call come sooner, the police said, Kitty's life could have been saved. 

 One of the experiments regarding the Genovese Syndrome began with a man sitting in a room alone. Not knowing the experiment had already begun, he saw smoke pouring into the room from under the door of the next room. He immediately got up and alerted others that there was a problem. Later, three people were placed in that same room, and smoke began pouring in. They coughed and fanned the smoke away from their faces, but nobody got up or said anything.  

The experiment showed that we don't just look at the evidence of an emergency. We look at the reactions of others. If they don't get excited, we reinterpret the data and conclude that things aren't as bad as they seem. The thirty-eight who witnessed Kitty's murder reinforced each other in their non-response. 

So it is with abortion. Individually, we see that it is an emergency crying out for a massive response. Smoke is pouring in; victims are screaming. Yet we don't see the massive response of others, and so responding becomes harder for us. 

And like one of those thirty-eight witnesses, when asked why they did not get involved, so many simply say, "I don't know."

Fr. Frank Pavone


Father Frank A. Pavone is an American Roman Catholic priest and pro-life activist. He is the National Director of Priests for Life and serves as the Chairman and Pastoral Director of Rachel's Vineyard.

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  • Guest

    How true.  We are desensitized to the atrocity of abortion.

  • Guest

    I think Jesus illustrated this "syndrome" to some extent with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

    All who passed were self focused cowards.  "And if it was such a big deal, why didn't the Holy Priest stop?"  one may have asked himself.

    As Fr Pavone frequently points out, there are many ways to work against the evil of abortion.  My husband and I are witnesses to the gift of life by raising a large family.  Claire is a witness to the Culture of Life by faithfully bearing infertility with faith and hope.

    One can work the issue into other topics without "beating people over the head with it" and guided by the Holy Spirit. 

    Of course you can always become a regular financial supporter of Priests for Life.  I'm sure Father Pavone could figure out how to put more resourses to use saving babies and sparing families the lifetime horror and death of abortion.

  • Guest

    Wonderful article.  The abortion "catch" at the end surprised me, but it was right on target.

    When it comes to abortion, I guess I am most apalled by why a majority of people today need our lawmakers to tell them abortion is right or wrong.  Hello out there it is real wrong!  Has society today become so dependent on "legal eagles" to inform us on right and wrong based on legal terms?  Not only is abortion wrong because it takes a life it is morally wrong!

    If you ask young people today if murder is wrong all will tell you yes because it is legally and morally wrong.  Then I ask why not abortion?  I get responses like:

    1. I really didn't want the baby.  My response- Don't have sex then.

    2.  I may not be able to care for it.  My response – Well put the "it" up for adoption and don't have sex until you are married.

    Somewhere in our modern society we have let the wrong people decide for us.

    We all need to vote our faith!

  • Guest

    This is a sad and horrible example of what our world is coming to.