Thirty-Eight Witnesses: A Review

From The Chicago Tribune:

Book_2 Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was 28 when she was stabbed to death in the New York City borough of Queens in 1964, but she and the circumstances surrounding her death remain alive in public reflexes every time we encounter what social psychologists often refer to as the bystander effect.

A.M. Rosenthal, who was metropolitan editor of the New York Times when the murder happened and so was in charge of its coverage, wrote a book shortly after the killing that is by turns indignant, self-excoriating and insightful not just on the social responsibilities of community but also on the paradoxes and foibles of journalism. Titled Thirty-Eight Witnesses, after the number of people at the time assumed to have knowledge of the crime but who did not report it as it occurred, it has just been reprinted after 44 years. While it resembles a time capsule in some respects, several of the haunting questions Rosenthal raised, generalized to any such situation, remain unanswerable, and link as firmly to the present as they did to their own time.

Rosenthal recounts one of the follow-up stories that the Times produced in the wake of the murder, contacting a random selection of sociologists, psychologists and theologians in search of perspective. From the sociologist who pointed to “‘affect denial'” to the theologian who spoke of New York’s “‘depersonalizing'” effects but asked not to be identified, Rosenthal noted that “the reaction of almost every one of these social physicians was to admit total failure on their part to understand.” As social psychologist Stanley Milgram, best known for his studies on authority and obedience, put it at a conference 20 years after the murder, the case represents “our primordial nightmare. If we need help, will those around us stand around and let us be destroyed or will they come to our aid?”

More here.