The Hartford Video: Something Has Gone Wrong — But What?
If you have not seen it, the video (warning: it is horrible to watch; I’ll link to it but not embed it), is a chilling cascade of horror that seems to epitomize the callous indifference of modern society:
(AP) HARTFORD, Conn. – A 78-year-old man is tossed like a rag doll by a hit-and-run driver and lies motionless on a busy city street as car after car goes by. Pedestrians gawk but appear to do nothing. One driver stops briefly but then pulls back into traffic. A man on a scooter slowly circles the victim before zipping away….Nine cars pass Torres as a few people stare from the sidewalk. Some approach Torres, but no one gets any closer than a couple of yards and no one attempts to stop or divert traffic until a police cruiser responding to an unrelated call arrives on the scene after about a minute and a half.”
What does it mean? The indignant bloggorati have concluded that something has gone dreadfully wrong in America, or at least in cities like Hartford, Conn. I don’t dispute this, but I think it is also more complicated than that. This story of course reminds me of the horrible Kitty Genovese case, in which 38 witnesses in a NYC apartment complex were said to have ignored for a half an hour the cries for help of a woman who was being repeatedly and brutally attacked and eventually stabbed to death in plain sight in the Apartment’s courtyard.
The facts turned out to be more equivocal: because the attacks took place in different locations, no witness saw the entire sequence; most heard only parts of the incident and did not realize its seriousness; a few saw only small portions of the initial assault, and no witnesses directly saw the final attack and attempted rape that killed Genovese. In the Hartford case, the police have begun to back off of their initially harsh judgment based on the video, indicating that four people dialed 911 within a minute of the incident.
Still, the tepid reaction of witnesses to these crimes remains disturbing. In the wake of the Genovese case, psychologists studied the bystander effect — in which individuals are less likely to help someone in trouble when there are others nearby who could help as well — and this seems to be at play in the Hartford video. Particularly painful to watch the small knot of people standing several feet away from the man, none of them stepping forward to comfort him.
Particularly painful is honestly asking myself where I would be in this picture. Would I have the courage to move to him. I pray I would. But you are better than me if you are completely confident of your reaction.
Then there is the fact that the video has quickly gone viral. There seems to be a voyeuristic aspect to all this handwringing, an unseemly reiteration of the indifference of seemingly callous onlookers. I am not sure what to make of this, but we seem to have a deep need to tell this story of cruel apathy about ourselves.
Clearly something has gone wrong in America — but what? And what role are each of us playing in it?