Our indifference to our fellow citizens drives us closer to the terrible world of Harlan Ellison
Harlan Ellison is an iconic writer of what has come to be known as speculative fiction—not quite science fiction, yet set in a cold-blooded and heartless future. Deathbird Stories, a collection first published in 1974, is something of a cult classic. Each story, superbly written, is horrifying. Ellison cautions readers not to attempt reading the entire book in one go.
The first story, The Whimper of Whipped Dogs, is based on an event that took place ten years earlier. Early one March morning in 1963, a 29-year-old woman in New York, Kitty Genovese, was brutally stabbed multiple times by a Winston Moseley, a machine operator. Moseley stabbed her, fled when a neighbour shouted, returned and assaulted Genovese again and, as she lay dying, raped her. Finally, someone called the police, who arrived in seconds, with an ambulance. Genovese died on the way to the hospital. Later investigations showed that nearly a dozen people heard or saw portions of the attack (though none saw it entirely). There was a witness to both the first and the second stabbings.
No one came to her help.
Ellison’s story is a marvel of precision, and horror. He describes the attack, and the screams, and then there’s this:
“Lights came on in dozens of apartments and people appeared in windows.
“He drove the knife to the hilt into her back, high on the right shoulder. He used both hands.
“Beth caught it all in jagged flashes—the man, the woman, the knife, the blood, the expressions on the faces of those watching from the windows. Then lights clicked off in the windows, but they still stood there, watching.”
Moseley was sentenced to death a few months later. On appeal, the sentence was reduced to a life-term. Serving out his sentence, Moseley escaped, seriously injuring and maiming several people, raped a woman in front of her husband and beat a policeman nearly to death. He is presently serving his sentence without parole.
He also now has a BA in sociology.
The Genovese incident did more than inspire a great story. Widely viewed as the unique apathy that marks large cities, it spawned an entire area of research in social psychology, even generating a name for the observed behaviour: the bystander effect, also known as the Genovese Syndrome, an event where, when other people are present, individuals fail to come to the help of someone in distress. The more the spectators, the less the chances of help. One explanation for this behaviour is the diffusion of responsibility, where everyone assumes that it is someone else’s problem, and so does nothing. Increasingly, bystanders do not want to get involved, fearing hassles with police and possible legal consequences.
In large cities with complex structures and systems, this can become a very real problem. In April 2010, Alftedo Tale-Yax, a Guatemalan immigrant, rushed to help a woman being attacked by a knife-wielding assailant. Tale-Yax was fatally stabbed. As he lay dying on the pavements of New York, at least 20 people walked passed, all caught on video.
Cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai pride themselves on being ‘safe’, especially for women, and especially in contrast to cities like Delhi. We like to claim that there is safety in numbers, and in a city as crowded as Mumbai, the ‘public’—always at flashpoint—will respond spontaneously to prevent a crime. Our cities are more open than those in the West. There’s far more informal and casual interaction with our neighbours on a daily basis, less individual isolation, and an unstated contract or understanding between us that when someone’s in a jam, we put aside differences and help the one who needs it. Of course there have been terrible exceptions—the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 perhaps most of all—but this is not typical of life in our cities. Very likely this is because the way our cities have shaped there is an inescapable confrontation between those who have it all and those who have nothing, and yet the two co-exist. It is this contract or understanding that keeps us whole.
When this understanding of what it means to be a fellow citizen is breached, it is not just an aberration. It is something profane, something that damages the city, and all of us who live in it. Every time we allow apathy and indifference to the distress of others to overwhelm us we lose our right to call ourselves citizens. Every step away takes us closer to the terrible world of Harlan Ellison.
Last week, my teenage daughter’s friend was mugged. Her attacker grabbed her from behind, crushed her toes with his boots. He stole her cell phone and wallet.
This happened at D-Road, near Churchgate. It was 11:30 in the morning. There were several people around. Not one came to her help, not one responded to her cries. They stood there, watching.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror and, under a different title, the Bangalore Mirror on Friday, 10 September 2010.
But They Still Stood There, Watching
Harlan Ellison is an iconic writer of what has come to be known as speculative fiction--not quite science fiction, yet set in a cold-blooded and heartless future. *Deathbird Stories*, a collection first published in 1974, is something of a cult classic. Each story, superbly written, is horrifying. Ellison cautions readers not to attempt reading the entire book in one go.