During my yearly media unit, I usually bring up the case of Kitty Genovese. In 1964, 28 year-old Genovese was attacked three times over 35 minutes, brutally stabbed, robbed and raped. While media accounts are now known to be inaccurate, what is unmistakable is that multiple people saw at least part of what was happening, but few called the police. There is also evidence that the police dispatchers didn’t understand what was happening. By the time the police did arrive after the final attack, it was too late. Genovese died on the way to the hospital. It will surprise no one, I suspect, to learn this happened in New York City.
Consider the story of Marianne Seregi, a talented art director at the Washington Post Magazine, told by Seregi in Slate.
What happened to Kevin Joseph Sutherland was horrific beyond imagining. On July 4, in front of about 10 witnesses on the Washington, D.C., Metro, an assailant punched him, stomped on him, kicked him in the head, and stabbed him at least 30 times. No one attempted to stop Sutherland’s killer.
What happened to me in November was vastly different, and I do not intend to equate the two events. Like Sutherland, I was attacked on a Saturday afternoon on the D.C. Metro. And as in Sutherland’s case, despite my screams and pleas, almost none of my fellow passengers on the crowded train car did anything to help.
I was in a window seat on the Blue Line, en route to meet friends for dinner. One teenage girl sat down next to a man in front of me; another sat beside me. They began by asking what kind of phone I had. The girl next to me patted down my pockets and, finding nothing, grabbed my coffee mug out of my hands. The girl in front put her finger in my face, getting as close as she could without touching me. They grabbed my legs. They threatened to rape me until I bled. One opened the other’s coat jacket, feigning—or not—that she had a weapon.
What are the chances that Sutherland could have survived if someone had done something?
Trying to get the attention of other passengers, I shouted at the top of my lungs, ‘Leave me alone!’ and ‘Stop touching me!’ I tried to flee when the train stopped, but they boxed me in and shoved me back down into my seat. The man sitting in front of me, next to one of the girls who attacked me, never turned around. He rode the train for a few stops, while the assault was going on, and then departed. The only person to come to my defense was a petite twentysomething woman who told the girls to cut it out. The girls briefly yelled at her—which filled me with both gratitude and, on her behalf, regret—but then turned their attention back to me.
On my second attempt to escape, I took several punches but managed to shove past them. The girls chased me off the train, then back on it, then off again. The chase dragged on across two stops. I was finally able to hit the emergency button and alert the conductor. Later that day, bruised but not otherwise hurt, I identified the girls for the police.
It took a month before I rode the train by myself again. I still feel uncomfortable riding it alone at night. My dad, back in Kansas, sent me what seemed like every pepper sprayer available on Amazon. I bought myself a comically oversized pepper-spray fogger that my boyfriend calls the ‘criminal extinguisher.’ I use earbuds more sparingly now. I rarely sit down on the train—that way I can’t be cornered.
What Seregi describes is an attempted robbery–a felony anywhere–and an actual assault, carried out over substantial time. Notice that Seregi does not identify the race of her attackers. Perhaps it’s simply not relevant, but considering the crime rate in Washington DC and the race of most of the criminals, perhaps it is. If we assume, for the moment, that her attackers were black, would their race have prevented onlookers from coming to Seregi’s aid, fearing social ostracism, or even prosecution, from the politically correct capital of America?
Seregi makes clear her lack of situational awareness by suggesting that she was wearing earbuds, and was thus surprised by the assault. She is apparently thinking more tactically these days and more aware of her surroundings. She is disappointed in herself for not acting more aggressively, for not defending herself.
After the incident, I felt angry at all the people on the crowded train car—there must have been 30 adults—who did nothing. When I screamed, no one tried to intervene. They didn’t hit the emergency call button. They didn’t even acknowledge that anything was happening. They just averted their eyes and let it continue. [skip]
Yes, it’s hypocritical. I wish people would have helped me, and I’m not sure I could have mustered the courage to do the same.
I don’t want to be someone so passive and self-preserving that I allow a stranger to be killed right in front of me. I don’t want to protect myself at all costs. But fear is a powerful emotion. And just because we think we are brave doesn’t mean that we are.
This is, in large part, why criminals can be successful. By attacking innocents, they violate the social contract. They violate personal space, the assumption that people should not harass or attack others. In violently attacking others, they take advantage of the kindness of others, of their very civility, and of the shock that commonly paralyzes, at least temporarily, many victims of crime.
Most people on commuter trains observe elevator protocols. They don’t look at, acknowledge, speak with, or interact with others, at least not any more than absolutely necessary. Face down in smart phones, their hearing dulled or cut off by earbuds, they aren’t paying attention to others, so others shouldn’t pay attention to them. There is, therefore, no sense of community. No belonging to the people standing and sitting within inches. Their fate is of no interest, no consequence, it invokes no obligation, no responsibility.
Marianne Seregi was on her own. In DC, everyone is disarmed and on their own, including the occasional Congressman or Senator who has the bad fortune to be robbed or assaulted.
Most people do not practice situational awareness. They’re utterly oblivious to what is happening around them. They never ask “what if?” and never think about what they would or should do if attacked. Bruce Lee beautifully summed up an appropriate response when he said: “if someone grabs you, punch them!”
In many cases, that’s great advice. Suddenly and unexpectedly facing resistance, many criminals will rapidly lose enthusiasm. Courage is nothing more than the willingness to carry on despite being afraid. When we live the Biblical admonition that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, we discover unlimited courage. For primarily cultural reasons, women tend to experience paralyzing fear more than men, but as the two predators that attacked Seregi demonstrated, they too can overcome it. Two extraordinary positive examples are Leigh Ann Hester and Monica Lin Brown.
Circa 2015, who are we? Are Americans, particularly men, metrosexuals? Are we pajama boys devoid of any outward manifestation of manhood other than second sexual characteristics? Do we no longer have the dignity, the decency to assume responsibility for the protection of women? Would the pathetic, pale non-females on that train with Seregi have done anything to protect children?
Forget for a moment, shared responsibility to protect the lives of individuals. What does it say about us when we are willing to allow criminal predators to do whatever they like? Remember, in this case, the criminals weren’t hiding their crimes. They weren’t taking pains to avoid being identified by witnesses. They were brazenly committing robbery and assault on a commuter train in the midst of multiple witnesses.
Failing to stop them, failing to so much as dial the police on ubiquitous smart phones gives the worst among us the ability to determine the boundaries of life. Robbery and assault amidst witnesses on a commuter train? No problem! That’s just daily life in DC. Let the criminals do whatever they please and maybe they won’t hurt us.
Criminals aren’t super beings. They are as vulnerable to well placed blows and joint locks as anyone. Their knees and elbows break as easily. Their throats crush as easily. Their eyes, testicles and vulvae are as easily damaged. They are as easily pierced by bullets.
Is this now true of all Americans, everywhere, or is this sickness of the corporate soul an artifact of urban life? Is this something we can blame on DC, Baltimore, Detroit or New York City under Democrat rule?
Hearing of the agonizing death of Kitty Genovese, my 15 year-old Texan teenagers have no doubt what they and their families would have done. As soon as they could have laid sights on her attacker, that attacker would have been dead or dying, bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds. They and their families are armed–firearm ownership and use is unremarkable to them–and wouldn’t think twice about saving their own lives or the lives of others. A Texan failing to protect a woman wouldn’t be able to show his face in public thereafter.
I have no doubt: had a Texan been on that train with Seregi, her attackers would have been reduced to bleeding piles of semi-human refuse in short order. Texans, of course, are not the only Americans that would have come to her defense, but are they now a minority, a non-victim minority to be sure, but a minority nonetheless?
Seregi is now aware of the necessity of situational awareness, of the reality that anyone may be attacked, anytime, anywhere. She will now be able to fight back if necessary, and if she chooses. She is also aware that, at least in DC, she cannot rely on anyone else to protect her, even the police. They’re normally only around in time to draw the chalk outline on the pavement. Seregi’s attackers were at least sure the police weren’t around. They made a bet they didn’t have to fear anyone else, and they were right. It’s highly unlikely Seregi was their only victim.
It is the possibility that any American would not come to Seregi’s defense that speaks ill of us all, and perhaps–perhaps–explains in part our current sickness of the national soul.