Exactly 47 years ago this weekend, a young woman named Kitty Genovese screamed for help as she was attacked outside her Queens, N.Y., apartment building. The New York Times reported two weeks later that 38 neighbors heard her cries but did nothing until it was too late.
That story was probably wrong in its details – investigators later determined that an initial stabbing pierced the woman’s lungs, leaving her unable to scream throughout most of the 35-minute homicide – but it was correct in its premise. Although a crowd is better able to intervene to stop a crime than any of its individual members, people are less likely to get involved when they know other witnesses are around.
Psychologists now call this the “bystander effect,” or sometimes the “Genovese syndrome” in memory of the victim of that 1964 street crime. Many factors contribute to the bystander effect, but two major components are social influence and diffusion of responsibility. Social influence occurs because the bystanders consider one another and do what everyone else is doing: nothing. Diffusion of responsibility results because, with so many potential good Samaritans available, each individual party feels less obliged to get involved.
The antidotes for the bystander effect are initiative and leadership. If someone steps up to help, the bystander effect is overcome and the victim just might be saved. If the party who decides to get involved then calls upon other bystanders for assistance, the others are liable to respond in some way. This is how the power of the group can be harnessed.
The bystander effect was not in evidence on United Flight 93 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Having learned of the earlier attacks on the World Trade Center, the passengers fought the hijackers for control of the aircraft and crashed it far short of its assumed target in the nation’s capital. In our time, the memory of Kitty Genovese has been displaced by the words of Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer: “Let’s roll.”
But the bystander effect is still with us. I fear we are seeing it in the slow response of America and its allies to the events in Libya.
The battle lines are clearly drawn. For the rebel forces opposing Col. Moammar Gadhafi, there are only two possible outcomes: remove him from power or die. Gadhafi, for his part, has made no bones about his willingness to slaughter as many Libyans as necessary to retain Tripoli and to retake the parts of the country that have escaped his grasp. His back is also against the wall, especially since the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation of his crimes against his people, which mount daily.
President Obama declared two weeks ago that Gadhafi has lost his legitimate claim to rule (a claim that was never particularly legitimate at any time during his 41 years in power) and that he must depart. That declaration probably helped embolden Libyans to join the rebellion. Now those same Libyans are being systematically hunted and slaughtered wherever Gadhafi’s loyalists and mercenaries can reach them.
This is Libya’s Kitty Genovese moment. The rebels are calling for help in the form of a no-fly zone that would stop Gadhafi’s airborne assaults and, just as importantly, greatly limit his ability to move troops around the country.
Would granting their request be choosing sides, without knowing much about Gadhafi’s would-be successors? Absolutely. But those neighbors who heard Kitty Genovese scream ought not to have been wondering about her character or why she was out on the street after 3 a.m. There was a man with a knife, and she was screaming for protection. Sometimes that’s all you need to know.
Would we be acting without the blessing of the United Nations Security Council? Absolutely. Two permanent members of the Council, namely Russia and China, will obstruct or veto any action against Gadhafi until it is too late to matter. Both are highly uncomfortable about any intervention against a dictatorial regime that too closely resembles their own. The Russians also benefit from the higher oil prices that Libya’s civil strife has produced. But neither Russia nor China will do anything about Western intervention in Libya beyond criticizing it. Neither has a vital interest in Gadhafi’s continued hold on power.
Our biggest obstacle is us. Obama was quick to endorse Gadhafi’s ouster when it appeared his people would soon topple him. Now that it would require a commitment of American military resources, the president has reverted to his usual posture, which is not to do much of anything unless someone else calls for it and votes on it. So he wants support from NATO and from the Security Council, and also the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity. From pretty much everyone, in fact, short of his daughters’ P.T.A.
While the Libyan people grow more desperate by the hour, and the risk increases that they will be trapped in an asylum run by its craziest and most bloodthirsty inmate, we are falling victim to the bystander effect. Nobody is taking action, and therefore, neither are we.
Obama could change the dynamic with a few phone calls to the heads of the British, French and Italian governments. He could tell them we are going to neutralize Gadhafi’s air power with them or without them, but that we ask for their assistance, too. For a combination of idealistic and commercial reasons – none of those three countries want America to become the pre-eminent friend of a post-Gadhafi Libya – they’ll probably join the cause. But it won’t matter much if they don’t.
The world stood by far too many times in the face of slaughters that could have been stopped. The names Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia should haunt diplomatic memory as much as the name Kitty Genovese haunts those of us old enough to remember it. Let’s not add Libya to the list.
Want to do something? You can go to the White House contact page and post the web address of this column. Put anything you want in the subject line, but I can’t think of anything better than the phrase Todd Beamer used.
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