Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Genovese Syndrome - Or "The Bystanders on the Bus" - in Fort McMurray

On occasion I read stories about incidents in our community that trouble me deeply, as a resident, woman and parent. This story from yesterday, detailing an incident that occurred on one of our municipal buses, is just such a story. It disturbs me on many levels, but particularly as the parent of a young woman almost the same age as the victim of this assault. And it disturbs me most because it appears this incident did not occur on an empty bus, but on one which contained other passengers who did not intervene, leaving the victim to not only fend for herself but to obtain evidence of the identity of the man who assaulted her. All I could think on reading this story is that we are better than this.

There are many questions to be asked, like where the bus driver was when this incident occurred. It only takes minutes for a sexual assault to occur – or a stabbing, or another act of violence - and the absence of the bus driver troubles me deeply. But I am also troubled by the lack of intervention by the other passengers on the bus.
There are those who may argue that perhaps the other passengers were unaware of what was happening, but if we are honest I think most of us have been in situations where we knew something was not quite right, even if we were not entirely certain why. I am the kind of person who calls for help even in those uncertain times, because I would rather be wrong and have intervened unnecessarily than be right and have done nothing. And I don’t mean one has to intervene in a way that risks harm to yourself, as you can dial 911 or even just call for the help of others as a crowd of individuals has a collective strength.

There is a recognized phenomenon in human psychology that is dubbed the “Genovese syndrome”. It refers to the sad case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was murdered in New York in 1964. Dozens of bystanders did little to intervene, and the case entered history as an example of the tendency of witnesses to such assaults being reluctant to intervene, and the myriad reasons behind such reluctance. At the end of the day, though, a young woman was dead and it appeared no one had truly done anything to try to save her life.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the individuals on this bus who appear to have done nothing to help a young woman in distress, although as a mother of a young woman I must admit that harshness is a reaction close to the surface for me in this instance. Instead of indicting them, though, I think this story should serve as a catalyst for all of us to consider what we would do should we witness this kind of incident. Part of preparedness is thinking through various scenarios and determining how you would react, so that when and if you are faced with a situation you have already thought through your reactions. When we are caught unawares in situations we have not considered our tendency is far too often to do nothing, as we find ourselves immobilized not out of lack of compassion but out of fear and not knowing how to respond in an appropriate way.

This story is, to me, particularly poignant given the recent media attention about sexual assault. It shows that we still don’t always know how to respond or react even when it occurs right in front of us, let alone behind closed doors and involving a celebrity. We struggle with what to do, how to react and even if we should intervene.
I have tremendous respect for this young woman who had the strength and intelligence to capture a photo of her assailant leading to his arrest and conviction. I also hope every person on that bus has taken a good, long hard look at themselves and their actions – or lack thereof – and considered what they would do should it ever happen again. And I hope this story, as sad as it is, causes all of us to look at ourselves and think about what we would do and how we would react, because the reality is none of us wants to be the bystander on the bus who did nothing when someone needed our help. And none of us wants ourselves – or someone we love – to be Kitty Genovese.

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